By Michael Church
HONG KONG (Reuters) - Mathew Leckie and Jackson Irvine sent Australia on their way to a 3-0 win over Kuwait on Thursday as Graham Arnold's side took a huge stride towards booking their place in the third phase of Asia's qualifying tournament for the 2022 World Cup.
Playing in their first game in more than 18 months due to the pandemic, Leckie showed the Socceroos had lost none of their sharpness by giving the Australians the lead with a header less than two minutes into the game.
Irvine doubled his side's advantage in the 23rd minute when he slotted home on the rebound after Martin Boyle had seen his penalty saved by Sulaiman Abdulghafoor.
Ajdin Hrustic added the third midway through the second half with a curling free kick to claim his first goal for the Socceroos in style.
The win was Australia's fifth in a row in Group B as they moved five points clear of Kuwait and Jordan, who did not play on Thursday.
Only the eight group winners in the second round of preliminaries are guaranteed to advance to the next phase alongside the four runners-up with the best records.
In Group C, Iran notched up a 3-1 win over Hong Kong but remain in third on nine points after Bahrain handed Cambodia an 8-0 thrashing that took Helio Sousa's side into pole position, one point ahead of Iraq who did not play on Thursday.
Ali Gholizadeh put Iran in front against Hong Kong from the tightest of angles before Vahid Amiri doubled the lead with a deflected shot 16 minutes into the second half.
Karim Ansarifard's close range effort put the result beyond doubt.
Ali Mabkhout and Fabio de Lima scored a brace apiece in the United Arab Emirates' 4-0 win over Malaysia in Group G allowing Bert van Marwijk's side to pull level with the South East Asians on nine points.
The UAE are now two points behind leaders Vietnam and their hopes of qualifying were boosted by Thailand's 2-2 draw with already-eliminated Indonesia.
That result also moves Akira Nishino's team onto nine points, although the Thais have played one game more than the other teams in the group.
Singapore's hopes in Group D suffered a serious blow when they shipped three goals in the opening 30 minutes against Palestine, with Tamer Seyam scoring twice from the penalty spot as the west Asians eventually ran out 4-0 winners.
World Cup hosts Qatar, playing in the qualifiers as they double up as preliminaries for the 2023 Asian Cup, moved seven points clear of Oman at the top of Group E with a 1-0 win over India thanks to a first-half goal from Abdulaziz Hatem.
(Reporting by Michael Church)