JAKARTA: China squeezed into the third round of Asia’s preliminaries for the 2026 World Cup by the narrowest of margins despite slipping to a 1-0 loss at the hands of South Korea in Seoul.

Indonesia, North Korea, Kuwait and Kyrgyzstan also confirmed their progress to the next round with the Chinese qualifying as runners-up in Group C behind the South Koreans after Thailand could only register a 3-1 victory over Singapore.

Needing to win by three clear goals, or to score at least four with a two-goal victory margin to climb above the Chinese in the standings, Masatada Ishii’s side fell agonisingly short of a spot in the draw for the next round on June 27.

Suphanat Mueanta put Thailand in front eight minutes before the break but Thailand-based forward Ikhsan Fandi levelled 12 minutes after the restart for the Singaporeans.

A frantic Thailand pushed forward as time ticked down with Poramet Arjvirai and Jaroensak Wonggorn scoring in the last 11 minutes to take their side closer to their target, but ultimately the War Elephants fell short.

The Chinese had earlier lost in Seoul World Cup Stadium when Paris St Germain winger Lee Kang-in scored from close range in the 61st minute to leave Branko Ivankovic and his players sweating on the outcome of the game in Bangkok.

Indonesia, meanwhile, confirmed their progress to the third round for the first time with a comfortable 2-0 win in Group F over the Philippines at a buoyant Gelora Bung Karno Stadium in Jakarta.

Netherlands-born midfielder Thom Haye put the home side in front 32 minutes into the game when he bent a perfectly judged right foot shot into the top corner of Kevin Mendoza’s goal.

The victory was secured through a glanced header by Rizky Ridho in the 56th minute that gave the unprotected Mendoza little chance as Indonesia confirmed a second-place finish behind already-qualified Iraq.

Japan cruised to a 5-0 win over Syria in Hiroshima that fatally damaged the hopes of Hector Cuper’s side, who were overtaken in Group B by North Korea as a result of Ri Jo Guk’s hat-trick in a 4-1 win over Myanmar in Vientiane.

Kuwait finished second in Group A when Eid Al-Rashidi scored in the 81st minute to hand Afghanistan a 1-0 loss, with the Gulf state taking the runners-up spot behind Asian champions Qatar, who extinguished India’s hopes with a 2-1 win in Al-Rayyan.

Kyrgyzstan confirmed their progress with a 1-1 draw with Group D winners Oman, who had already sealed their spot in the third round as Eldiyar Zarypbekov saw his 19th minute opener cancelled out by Abdul Aziz Khalfan’s deflected strike.

The draw for the next round will feature 18 nations, including regular World Cup qualifiers Japan, South Korea, Australia, Iran and Saudi Arabia, who had all secured their berths ahead of Tuesday’s group matches.

Uzbekistan, Jordan, Bahrain and Palestine have also qualified for the third phase, which will see teams compete for six of the continent’s eight guaranteed spots in the finals in the United States, Mexico and Canada.

. . . And in Africa:

CAIRO: Striker Ayoub El Kaabi netted a hat-trick as Morocco stormed to a 6-0 win over Congo in World Cup qualification, maintaining their 100% start to the African preliminaries for the 2026 finals in North America.

But other leading contenders, Cameroon and African champions Ivory Coast, were held to away draws on a busy day of action around the continent.

El Kaabi kept up the goalscoring form that helped Olympiakos win the Europa Conference League last month with his hat-trick as Morocco made it three wins out of three in Group E.

The thrashing of Congo in Agadir started with a sumptuous curling goal from Azzedine Ounahi and there were also goals for Chadi Riad and Soufiane Rahimi as Morocco reminded everyone of their exploits at the last World Cup in Qatar where they reached the semi-finals.

Zambia were expected to prove the toughest challenger for Morocco in the group but their chances are now severely impaired after a 1-0 home defeat by neighbours Tanzania. Waziri Junior scored the only goal of the game in the fifth minute.

Ivory Coast had their 100% start to their Group F campaign halted in a 0-0 draw away against Kenya but remain top of the standings. The match was played in Lilongwe, Malawi because Kenya, due to co-host the 2027 Africa Cup of Nations finals, do not have a suitable stadium for their home internationals.

Kenya had an effort cleared off the Ivorian goalline midway through the second half before Ivorian substitute Oumar Diakite struck the woodwork in the 82nd minute.

Cameroon top Group D after a potentially important point away against Angola after Bryan Mbeumo put them ahead in the 11th minute before a home fightback in Luanda saw Angola force a second-half own goal from Michael Ngadeu for a deserved share of the spoils.

Also in the group, Diney Borges’ 10th minute goal allowed Cape Verde to beat Libya 1-0 while Mauritius won a World Cup qualifier for only the second time as they edged Eswatini 2-1 at home.

Sudan went to the top of Group B despite the civil war raging in the country that has brought their league to a halt and forced players into exile. They won their derby away against South Sudan 3-0, spoiling the re-opening of the renovated stadium in Juba attended by FIFA president Gianni Infantino.

The victory saw Sudan move two points ahead of Senegal in the standings.

Mali missed out on a chance to move closer to leaders Ghana in Group I after being held by 10-man Madagascar, who had centre back Louis Demoleon sent off in the 15th minute of the match played at Soccer City in Johannesburg

But Mali failed to make use of the advantage and played out a goalless draw. They had only arrived in South Africa 10 hours before the afternoon kick off after botched travel arrangements.

Comoros Islands are level with Ghana on nine points after a 2-0 away win over Chad.

Thapelo Morena scored a second-half double as South Africa joined Benin and Rwanda at the head of Group C with seven points from four matches after winning their derby against Zimbabwe 3-1 in Bloemfontein.

Iqraam Rayners’ goal after 31 seconds handed South Africa a dream start only for Zimbabwe to equalise within a minute through Wolverhampton Wanderers striker Tawanda Chirewa, winning only his second cap.

Rwanda won 1-0 away against Lesotho at the same time with a goal from Jojea Kwizera, who plays for Rhode Island in the second tier of football in the U.S.

Benin had gone top of the standings on Monday after a shock 2-1 win over Nigeria.

Tuesday’s matches concluded the fourth round of African World Cup qualifiers, which will resume in March next year.

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