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Iran opens gap amid violence in Pyongyang
By Alastair Himmer
March 30th, 05
SAITAMA, Japan (Reuters) - Iran coach Branko Ivankovic claimed his players' lives were in danger after their 2-0 World Cup qualifying win in North Korea on Wednesday.
Iran's victory meant they took the outright lead in their Asian World Cup qualifying group but their joy was soured by a rare outbreak of crowd violence in Pyongyang.
Meanwhile, Japan kept the pressure on Iran but the Asian champions needed an own goal to edge past a determined Bahrain side 1-0 at home.
Iran top Group B in the final round of Asian qualifiers with seven points from three matches. Japan, who suffered a 2-1 defeat in Tehran last week, have six.
Bahrain have four points while North Korea's hopes of qualifying for their second World Cup are in tatters after three consecutive losses.
In Group A, 2002 World Cup semi-finalists South Korea overcame Uzbekistan 2-1 at home to get their campaign back on track after defeat in Saudi Arabia last Friday.
North Korean soldiers and police were hastily mobilised to restore order among a crowd of 60,000 after a refereeing decision sparked ugly scenes at Kim Il-sung Stadium.
The match officials were unable to leave the pitch for 20 minutes after the game as angry fans hurled bottles, rocks and chairs.
Army reserves and police waded in after trouble flared following defender Nam Song-chol's late dismissal for shoving Syrian referee Mohamed Kousa.
A deflected free kick from Mehdi Mahdavikia in the 33rd minute and a Javad Nekounam strike 10 minutes from time gave Iran the points.
After the game, the rioting spilled over outside the stadium and Iran's players were unable to board their bus as thousands of North Korea fans blocked their exit.
"We felt our lives were not safe," said Ivankovic. "I'm very sad. We tried to get on the bus after the game but it was not possible -- it was a very dangerous situation."
Japan's victory relieved some of the pressure on Brazilian coach Zico following last Friday's setback against Iran.
"You don't expect any easy matches in World Cup qualifying," said Zico. "I'm proud that the players kept battling right to the end. We must make sure we build on this result."
Mohamed Ahmed's own goal in the 72nd minute calmed Japanese nerves after a week of bickering among the players, some of whom publicly voiced frustration at Zico's tactics.
South Korea rebounded from last week's 2-0 defeat in Saudi Arabia with Lee Young-pyo and Lee Dong-gook scoring second-half goals in Seoul.
The Koreans have six points from three games but could be overtaken later on Wednesday when Saudi Arabia face Gulf rivals Kuwait away.
Saudi Arabia have four points from two matches so far with Kuwait on three. Uzbekistan have one point from three games.
The top two teams from each group of four advances automatically for next year's World Cup in Germany.
The two third-placed teams play each other over two legs for the right to contest a home-and-away playoff with a team from the CONCACAF zone and earn a possible fifth Asian spot.