Sept 6 South Korea were held to a surprise 0-0 draw by Syria in 2018 World Cup qualifying on Tuesday, while neighbours Japan got their campaign back on track with a 2-0 win over Thailand in Bangkok.
The Koreans, bidding for a ninth consecutive appearance at the World Cup finals, were lucky to hang on for a 3-2 win over China in their Group A opener last week and again failed to shine against Syria, ranked 57 places below them at No. 105.
With Son Heung-min returning to England to fight for his place at Tottenham Hotspur, Korea had little sharpness about them up front and had few clear cut chances in a match played in Malaysia as Syria's civil war means they have to play "home" games at neutral venues.
Ki Sung-yueng and Lee Chung-yong both went close for South Korea, who could easily have been down to 10 men when defender Oh Jae-suk 'clotheslined' Mahmoud Al Mawas as he broke clear on goal. Referee Chris Beath opted for leniency and showed a yellow card.
South Korea coach Uli Stielike was unhappy with the way Syria tried to slow the game down but said his side had to shoulder the blame for failing to break them down.
"It was tough to deal with the time-wasting," he said. "But in the end it was our fault for failing to score."
Iran, who drew 0-0 with China, top the section on goal difference ahead of Korea, both on four points, though Uzbekistan can leapfrog them both by beating Qatar in the day's final group game.
In Group B, Japan scored an important victory over Thailand to steady the ship after their shock 2-1 loss to United Arab Emirates in Saitama last week. Genki Haraguchi (17th minute) and Takuma Asano (75th) got the goals.
"This game was very difficult psychologically," Kyodo news quoted Japan coach Vahid Halilhodzic as saying. "After our first match we were under so much pressure and we had to get out from under that."
Saudi Arabia fought back from a goal down to beat Iraq 2-1 thanks to two late penalties from Nawaf Al Abid. They moved clear in Group B on six points, but Australia will look to join them when they face the UAE in Abu Dhabi later on Tuesday.
(Reporting by Peter Rutherford in Seoul; Editing by Toby Davis)