Malaysia pull off stunning fightback, Lee Kang-in unleashed in Asian World Cup qualifiers

Malaysia produced a spirited fightback to beat Kyrgyz Republic 4-3 in their opening tie of the second round of Asian qualifiers for the 2026 FIFA World Cup. How Foo Yeen/Getty Images

Although the 2026 FIFA World Cup is still a fair distance away, the road to get there has already begun in Asia and the second round of Asian qualifiers officially began on Thursday.

Most of the continent's leading lights were able to get their campaigns underway with the minimal of fuss with a number of massive wins recorded, but there were also a couple of big upsets.

Here, we take a look at the five things we learned from Thursday's action.

Malaysia show grit to pull off huge comeback

After taking a 7th-minute lead at Bukit Jalil National Stadium, Malaysia then looked like they had thrown it all the way as they trailed Kyrgyz Republic 3-1 before the hour mark following a fightback from the visitors -- only for Harimau Malaya to then go on to produce a stirring response of their own.

Kickstarted by an own-goal in the 72nd minute, defender Dion Cools then levelled the scores five minutes later with his second of the evening before Faisal Abdul Halim bagged a dramatic winner in the third minute of injury-time.

It was a statement victory for the Malaysians given the manner in which they achieved it against opposition sitting 50 places above them in the FIFA world rankings in 97th.

And the result could be even more significant given the fact that Group B looks to have a clear frontrunner in Oman but with either one of Malaysia and Kyrgyz Republic both an excellent chance to claim a top-two finish ahead of Chinese Taipei to advance to the third round.

ASEAN hopefuls have plenty of work to do

While Malaysia were victorious, there was less joy for their Southeast Asian neighbours -- with Vietnam the only other to pick up three points as they beat a fellow ASEAN outfit in Philippines.

Thailand were unable to hold on to an early lead as they lost 2-1 to China, Singapore and Myanmar suffered 5-0 routs at the hands of South Korea and Japan respectively, while Indonesia were beaten 5-1 by Iraq.

The fact that Vietnam, Indonesia and Philippines are all in Group F means that at least one is guaranteed to advance yet, with the others finding themselves facing tricky tests and off to disappointing stars, Southeast Asian football has plenty to do if they are to better their record from last time out of having just one representative in the third round of Asian qualifiers.

Lee Kang-in ready to shine for South Korea

For all the potential he showed from the time he came through the academy of Valencia, Lee Kang-in's career has yet to really take off although that could change following his summer move to Paris Saint-Germain.

Still, few would deny his quality so it was fairly surprising that he did not feature prominently for South Korea at last year's World Cup -- shining when he did get the opportunity in a cameo off the bench against Ghana and then starting in the win over Portugal that secured a round-of-16 berth.

There were suggestions that then South Korea coach Paulo Bento was not completely convinced with the attacking midfielder's attitude but with the Portuguese now gone, his successor Jurgen Klinsmann appears to have no such issues.

In a 5-0 dismantling of Singapore where everyone was expecting Son Heung-min to be the Taegeuk Warriors' main man, it was Lee who ran the show and looked the likeliest to carve apart the opposition defence with his wand of a left foot.

While Son has had to shoulder the burden of South Korean expectations in recent years, Lee is now primed to step up as a star in his own right.

Big guns up and running but is gulf in class narrowing?

5-0 wins for Japan and South Korea, an 8-1 thrashing for Qatar over Afghanistan, Iran and Saudi Arabia recording 4-0 triumphs over Hong Kong and Pakistan -- it did seem like business as usual for Asia's powerhouses.

But was it as straightforward as it looked?

After all, in the previous edition, both Japan and Iran notched staggering 14-0 and 10-0 victories on separate occasions, while five-goal or more victories were a fairly common occurrence throughout the campaign.

The heavyweights are still cruising to victory but the reduced margin of victory hints that the gulf in class between the best teams and the developing nations could be closing -- which can only be a good thing for football in the continent.

Of course, Thursday was only the opening action of the second round of Asian qualifiers so this could be one to keep an eye on.

India record massive result against Kuwait

For the biggest result of Thursday, look no further than India's 1-0 away win over Kuwait in Group A.

An initial glance at the world rankings might suggest this was not that big an upset, especially with India 34 places above their opposition.

Still, Kuwait's standing has been affected over the years by three international bans imposed by them on FIFA since 2007 and they remain a formidable outfit on the pitch -- even if they are no longer the dominant force in West Asia that they once were having been overtaken by the likes of Saudi Arabia and Qatar since then.

For India to open their campaign by beating the Kuwaitis, who they lost to on penalties just back in July in the final of the SAFF Championship, marked a positive first step in their quest for a top-two finish in Group A -- which is now already looking even more achievable.