SEOUL (AFP) - South Korea had a first-half own goal to thank on Tuesday, as they edged Uzbekistan 1-0 for a vital win which could be enough to put them through to their eighth successive football World Cup next year.
Defender Akmal Shorakhmedov was the fall guy when he headed Kim Young Gwon's vicious cross into his own net just before half-time, but Korea showed enough attacking endeavour to deserve their win at Seoul World Cup Stadium.
The Taeguk Warriors, World Cup semi-finalists on home soil in 2002, open up a three-point lead on 14 points over Uzbekistan at the top of a tight Group A and will go through if bottom side Lebanon (five points) beat third-placed Iran (10) later.
Only the top two teams in Asia's two final qualifying groups win automatic spots, with the third-placed countries entering a play-off. Group B winners Japan are the only team to book their ticket to Brazil so far.
After a cagey opening, Anzur Ismailov's long shot forced a save from Jung Sung Ryong, and reigning Asian player of the Lee Keun Ho was guilty of a terrible miss when he sliced an easy shot wide from close range.
Uzbekistan's Ulugbek Bakaev drew Korean goalkeeper Jung into action again with a shot but he also passed up a golden chance when he met Server Djeparov's cross unmarked at the far post, but planted his header high and wide.
After 41 minutes, imposing Korean striker Kim Shin Wook's knock-down fell to Lee Myoung Ju, but Uzbek custodian Ignatiy Nesterov dived low at his feet to deny the debutant midfielder.
However, the Korean pressure told just a minute later when Kim Young Gwon's arcing cross from deep on the right fell to the unfortunate Shorakhmedov, who could only direct it into his own net.
After the break, Timur Kapadze fired over in a strong spell for the visitors but South Korea gradually regained control and had the best chances of the second half.
Hamburg striker Son Heung Min beat two defenders with a slalom run into the box but saw his shot deflected, and from the ensuing corner Kwak Tae Hwi's strong header brought a sharp save from Nesterov.
Kim Shin Wook's header was also saved while at the other end the influential Djeparov, a two-time Asian player of the year, came close to levelling it with a run and shot which arrowed wide.
Korea will now await the result of Lebanon's game later against Iran, who have contested three World Cups and will travel to Ulsan for their final qualifier next week.
Uzbekistan, still capable of making history as the first Central Asian country to reach the World Cup, are at home to Qatar (seven points) in their last game next Tuesday.