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Asian World Cup Qualifying: The Stretch Run

Saturday 2nd September 2017
Russia 2018 is only months away. Before the New Year, all 32 participants will be known. Here's how Asian World Cup qualifying is set for the stretch run.

The Asian Football Confederation's power isn't as concentrated as Concacaf's. Nor is it as evenly distributed as UEFA's. There aren't elite football nations everywhere you look but there are slightly more than two or three.

Japan, Australia, and South Korea are the most familiar sides outside the region. Yet, Iran and Saudi Arabia also field strong sides. Iran, especially, has improved immensely under Carlos Queiroz. Team Melli have dominated their third round group, qualifying for the World Cup in Mid-June, before everyone except hosts Russia and Brazil. Yesterday, Japan joined them by defeating Australia.

Here's how the two groups stand as of 1 September and what each remaining hopeful must accomplish in its final group match to earn a place in the World Cup.

Group A


As already noted, Carlos Queiroz and Iran have long since guaranteed their presence in Russia. They did so despite visa concerns for talented Iranian-American forward Justin Meram.

South Korea

Perrennial participants South Korea still have work to do. Shin Tae-Yong's Taeguk Warriors sit second in Group A. On the same day in June that Iran was celebrating its progression, the Reds suffered a stunning 3-2 away loss to bottom side Qatar. On Thursday, they eked out a goalless draw against Iran. Tuesday sees them in Tashkent against Uzbekistan.

Being the final group match, victory obviously sends South Korea through. A draw might, too, considering Syria faces the group winners in Tehran to close its run. If Syria somehow steals all three points from their potentially disinterested hosts, however, the Koreans will have to play an October two-legged tie against the third-place country in Group B, then, assuming they win, another against the fourth-place nation from the Concacaf Hexagonal.
Shin has some quality in his squad. Swansea's Ki Sung-Yeung and Spurs' Son Heung-Min are midfield options, along with Augsburg's Koo Ja-Cheol. Red Bull Salzburg's young striker Hwang Hee-Chan is also on hand. Such talent makes one wonder how they painted themselves into this corner.


Ayman Hakeem's Qasioun Eagles all play with Middle Eastern or Asian clubs. Yet, Syria find themselves in a position to pip South Korea and the Uzbekis to direct qualification. They must beat Team Melli to do so. Their goal difference is two better than Uzbekistan's, an advantage that must be maintained, as well.


Uzbekistan's White Wolves are cagey veterans. With eleven players in the current squad 28 or older, their World Cup window could be closing. Victory on Tuesday guarantees them at least third place. A draw leaves matters in Iran and Syria's hands. A loss ends their run. The pressure is on Samvel Babayan's squad to capitalise on South Korea's poor form.


Under Marcelo Lippi, China have improved. Team Dragon actually have a chance to breathe life into their 2018 World Cup hopes if they can show a little fire against Qatar on Tuesday in Doha. They must win in style while both Syria and Uzbekistan fall. A long shot but stranger things have happened.


Qatar can only rescue themselves from the cellar with a win against the Chinese. Considering the skepticism and labour controversies surrounding the country's 2022 World Cup bid and project, that isn't a strong peg on which to hang one's ghutra.

Group B

With the Japanese through, Group B's focus turns to three countries: Saudi Arabia, Australia, and the United Arab Emirates.

Saudi Arabia

Having scored two more goals than the Socceroos, the Saudis are in the driver's seat. Unfortunately, they're facing a head-on collision with Japan in their final group match at the King Abdulla Stadium. The Green Falcons entire squad plays in the Saudi League, making theirs an appropriate colour when it comes to international experience. On the other hand, coach Bertie van Maarwijk has managed a World Cup Final. If you don't recall which, Nigel de Jong will pop 'round to kick-start your memory. A win will send them to Russia. A draw and any kind other than an epic defeat should leave them in the playoff round. Obviously, Marwijk will be hoping for a little cheddah in Jeddah.


Unlike the Matildas, who recently beat the women's world-number-one US, the Socceroos have found their momentum halted. After knocking off its two nearest rivals, the UAE and Saudis, Australia came up flat against Japan. They go home to Melbourne where they will have the opportunity to take their frustrations out on table anchors Thailand while Saudi Arabia attempts to deal with the Blue Samurais. A sizable win is very probable, giving Ange Postecoglou's side a chance to erase their goal-difference disadvantage and confirm their World Cup bonafides.
Thirty-seven-year-old Tim Cahill is still in the squad but very young nevertheless. Aaron Mooy (Huddersfield), Tom Rogic (Celtic), and Mathew Ryan (Brighton) all feature. Even with a poor performance, this team should reach the playoff round.

United Arab Emirates

The Argentine made his name coaching lesser lights to play above their heads before struggling with the corruption-saddled Albiceleste after Tata Martino resigned. It shouldn't surprise, then, that he has Eyal Zayed in the thick of Asian World Cup qualification.

Bauza needs to coax one more win from his side, however. That could be tricky with an away trip to Amman in the offing. Iraq are five points lower in the table but certainly less a pushover than Australia's final opponent. Unlike the Saudis and Socceroos, UAE cannot afford anything except victory. Bauza doesn't have Lionel Messi at his disposal this time. On the other hand, he does have Omar Abdulrahman, perhaps the most gifted player outside Europe. Game on.
Martin Palazzotto

The former editor of World Football Columns, Martin authored the short story collection strange bOUnce. He appeared in several other blogs which no longer exist. Old, he likes to bring out defunct. If outdated sport and pop-cultural references intrude on his meanderings for It's Round and It's White, don't be alarmed. He's harmless.

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