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Japan on top; Korea lose

TOKYO, Aug 17 (Reuters) - Japan secured top spot in their World Cup qualifying group on Wednesday while South Korea coach Jo Bonfrere was left wondering if he would still be around for next year's finals.

Asian champions Japan beat Iran 2-1 at home in a virtually meaningless Group B game after both teams had already booked their tickets for Germany in 2006.

South Korea and Saudi Arabia also secured qualification two months ago but the Gulf side's 1-0 win in Seoul in Group A added to the pressure on the beleaguered Bonfrere.

Meanwhile, Uzbekistan shattered Kuwait's World Cup dreams with a dramatic 3-2 win in Tashkent in Group A that sent the home side into a playoff against Bahrain.

Bahrain, third in Group B and sure of their playoff berth, went down 3-2 to North Korea who won with a last minute goal from Chol Hyok An to end their qualifiers with a first victory after five successive defeats.

Bonfrere's job could be in jeopardy after a string of mediocre results in qualifying and South Korea's shock last-place finish at this month's East Asian Championship.

The Dutchman was booed before kickoff but he struck a defiant chord after the game.

"The fans forget very fast that we qualified for the World Cup," he told reporters.

"I'm very hopeful that...we can have a successful World Cup. That's what I believe and I state that with 100 percent confidence."

South Korea's proud record of appearing at every World Cup finals since 1986 was never seriously in doubt, although a return of 10 points from six games has put Bonfrere's future in doubt.

Saudi Arabia, who defeated South Korea 2-0 in March, finished top of Group A with 14 points.


The Koreans again looked a pale shadow of the side that reached the 2002 World Cup semi-finals and the home team's misery was compounded when Kim Dong-jin was sent off in the 75th minute.

The Korea Football Association (KFA) warned last week that it was monitoring the situation and would not ignore calls for Bonfrere's dismissal forever.

Japan closed out their Group B campaign with Akira Kaji and Masashi Oguro on target in sweltering Yokohama.

Iran's talisman Ali Daei pulled one back from the penalty spot 11 minutes from time to extend his world record tally to 105 goals from 141 internationals.

"We've had earthquakes, typhoons and political arguments along the way but we've come through," Japan coach Zico told the 66,000 crowd at an emotional post-match ceremony.

"This team has the self-belief and the mental strength to overcome those sorts of obstacles."

Japan finished with 15 points, two ahead of Iran.

In Tashkent, Uzbekistan battled back from two goals down to stun Kuwait and earn the right to face Bahrain.

A draw would have been enough for the visitors but Anvarjon Soliev snatched a dramatic winner 14 minutes from time to lift Uzbekistan above Kuwait in Group A.

Uzbekistan take on Bahrain in a two-leg playoff on September 2 and 7. The winners advance to a further playoff against the fourth-placed side from the CONCACAF region for a berth in 2006 finals in Germany.
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