Who are Asia's World Cup dark horses?
The Asian Football Confederation (AFC) is five teams strong at the 2018 World Cup: Japan, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, Iran and Australia. By now, everyone should know the Socceroos ditched Oceania to find some serious competition. The World Cup is as serious as international football gets, though. Can any Asian sides fight their way through the group stages and possibly beyond?
On paper, the scenario does not look like a proper one. But, hey, let's give the lads a chance.
It wouldn’t be a stretch to call Saudi Arabia not only the weakest side among AFC qualifiers, but possibly the worst team in the tournament. Even though the Saudi side impressed in the AFC World Cup Qualifying stage, finishing second above Australia and UAE in Group B, they will have a tough time in Russia.
Drawn against the hosts, Luis Suarez’s Uruguay and Mohamed Salah’s Egypt. Juan Antonio Pizzi’s men will have a tough time securing a point. We'll have to look elsewhere for an upset candidate.
Iran aren't exactly living the good life. Despite being the top Asian side in the latest FIFA Rankings (#36), they couldn’t have picked a tougher group if they wanted. Spain. Portugal. Even Morocco. The Atlas Lions didn’t allow a single goal in their six CAF group stage matches. Carlos Queiroz has a strong side but PEDs probably wouldn't help in this group.
Like the Saudis, Iran will struggle to reach the Round of 16. Their inexperience and opponents' strength conspire against them.
Based on their quality in comparison to their opponents, it isn’t a reach to say Australia have the best chances among Asian sides to advance. They will debut against France, but their other two opponents, Peru and Denmark, are on the Socceroos' level in terms of quality and experience. It’s not going to be easy but the chance is there if Bert van Marwijk's squad can take advantage.
The bad news? Peru is riding a 13-game undefeated streak, captain Paolo Guerrero has been given a reprieve from a drug suspension, and Denmark have Christian Eriksen in top form, and the Aussies are still accustoming themselves to Van Marwijk's system.
South Korea have not missed a World Cup since 1986 but have only advanced past the group stage twice. Will they make it a third time on Russian soil? They will field the most talented roster in their history, led by Tottenham star Son Heung-Min. Still, even that might not be enough.
The Taeguk Warriors consider Iran the lucky ones when it comes to difficult draws. Shin Tae-yong's side are in the mix with Germany, Mexico and Sweden. They could make a decent push for the second spot but the path will be tough. Mexico are CONCACAF’s top team. Sweden eliminated Italy in the UEFA playoffs. Expect Korea to fight hard, because that’s everything they can do. They need to be at their best to have a slim chance.
The Blue Samurai are an interesting team loaded with talent on both ends of the pitch. Their group is a free-for-all with Poland, Colombia and Senegal. Any two nations could move on. Colombia are a step above the rest in terms of quality. Senegal bring Sadio Mane, Keita Balde, Idrissa Gueye and Kalidou Koulibaly to the party. Poland have Robert Lewandowski. Keisuke Honda and the Shinjis, Kagawa and Okazaki will carry the standard for Japan. Seems like a fair fight.
Australia and Japan have the best opportunities to reach the Round of 16. The latter are more stable and cohesive, however. The smart money should be on them. It's even possible for Akira Nishino's team to top the group. The stars would have to align in the Land of the Rising Sun, but it could be there as much as anywhere else.