TEHERAN (AFP) - Javad Nekounam starred with a hat-trick as three-time champions Iran kick-started their 2015 Asian Cup football qualifying campaign with a crushing 5-0 victory over Lebanon on Wednesday.
The ex-Osasuna man, now with Iran's Esteghlal, slotted penalties either side of half-time and added the hosts' fifth and final goal while Standard Liege striker Reza Ghoochannejhad weighed in with a brace at Teheran's Azadi Stadium.
The rousing win made Iran early favourites to join Japan, host nation Australia and South Korea, who finished first, second and third in 2011, at the Asian Cup's next edition in early 2015.
The top two teams from each of five qualifying groups go through, along with the best third-placed team, with Iran already well placed at the top of Group B.
Team Melli's closest group rivals on the opening match day were Kuwait, who made South-east Asian runners-up Thailand suffer in front of their own fans with a 3-1 victory in Bangkok.
An early own goal rocked Thailand, beaten in December's AFF Suzuki Cup decider by Singapore, and second-half strikes by Hussain Fadhel and Hamad Aman put them virtually out of contention before Chanathip Songkrasin's late consolation.
Among Wednesday's later fixtures, Jose Antonio Camacho's China play three-time champions Saudi Arabia, and 2007 champions Iraq host Indonesia.