By Patrick Johnston
(Reuters) - Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and United Arab Emirates capped a good night for West Asia when the Gulf trio became the first sides to qualify for the 2015 Asian Cup after each scored home wins on Friday.
The UAE swept past Hong Kong 4-0 to make it four wins from four in Group E and secure one of the top two places in the pool, while three-times champions Saudi Arabia also have 12 points after they beat 2007 winners Iraq 2-1 in Group C.
Bahrain edged Malaysia 1-0 after a late goal by Ismaeel Abdulatif secured the points in their Group D clash as the trio all bounced back following the disappointment of dismal 2014 World Cup qualifying campaigns.
They were three of the six qualifying wins for West Asian Football Federation members on Friday with Iran, Qatar and Syria also proving victorious, while all five Southeast Asian sides lost to leave the region looking unlikely to provide one of the 16 finalists.
Australia as hosts, Japan as holders, and South Korea after finishing third last time, have already qualified for the showpiece, with North Korea also securing a spot courtesy of winning the AFC's Challenge Cup for developing soccer nations.
Bahrain, hampered by a number of injuries, were the first to join the quartet at the finals after they overcame a stubborn Malaysia side who had held them 1-1 in Kuala Lumpur last month.
Abdulatif was the match-winner, taking a pass from Abdulla Al Hazaa over his shoulder in the 72nd minute before turning in the area and firing a right foot shot past Khairul Fahmi in the Malaysian goal.
Bahrain, who made the match free for fans, are top of the group on 10 points from four games, one ahead of Qatar who left Yemen still looking for their first point after a 4-1 win. Qatar can also qualify if they avoid defeat in Malaysia on Tuesday.
The United Arab Emirates had a far easier evening in Group E as they enjoyed a comfortable win thanks to goals by Salem Al Rejaibi, Walid Abbas, Ismail Al Hammadi and the talented Omar Abdulrahman.
Uzbekistan look most likely to join the UAE in qualifying from the group after they moved on to seven points with a 3-0 victory away to Vietnam. An away win over Hong Kong on Tuesday will secure a place in the finals.
Saudi Arabia, giants of Asian football who have struggled in recent years, continued to show they are heading in the right direction with a decisive win that left Iraq in grave danger of missing out on Australia.
Taisir Al-Jassim put the home side ahead but they were pegged back after Iraqi stalwart Younus Mahmoud deservedly leveled before halftime only for Salman Al-Faraj to grab the winner on the hour mark.
Iraq have three points and are four behind China, who started with seven members of Guangzhou Evergrande's AFC Champions League winning team in their 1-0 win over Indonesia.
"Our team is improving gradually, gaining experiences from big tournaments," China's caretaker coach Fu Bo said after Wu Lei's winner just before halftime kept them on course to appear at an 11th consecutive Asian Cup.
In Group B, World Cup-bound Iran proved far too good for struggling Thailand, easing to a 3-0 win in Bangkok that maintained their hold on top spot.
Ashkan Dejagah, Reza Ghoochannejhad and Alireza Jahanbakhsh scored the goals to leave coach Carlos Queiroz a happy man.
"We go to Lebanon next week with 10 points which was our goal. I think it will be enough to qualify for the Asian Cup finals," the Portuguese told reporters.
Kuwait are second in the group on six points after they wasted a number of chances in a goalless draw at home to Lebanon, who are one point behind in third.
In Group A, Syria thrashed Singapore 4-0 in their "home" match in Tehran to keep alive hopes of catching Jordan or Oman who hold the two qualifying positions.
(Editing by Mark Meadows)