PODCAST: Kosovo's big dreams & UAE's Saudi jinx

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Listen to this week's international-focused podcast.

The road to Russia 2018 is well underway but who will have the opportunity to take the famous trophy from the iron grasp of Vladimir Putin in two years’ time?

Mark Lomas is joined by Sport360’s James Piercy and Matt Jones to discuss. Also on this week’s show:

– Why Kosovo are definitely better than Gibraltar.

– Are Chile suffering a Copa America hangover?
– Is Italy vs Spain destined to be a draw?

– Can UAE finally get the Saudi monkey off their back?
– Who is the oldest Premier League goalkeeper ever?

Share with us your thoughts by commenting below, using #360fans on Twitter or getting in touch via Facebook.

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Asia Angle: Five big WCQ questions

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The third matchday in the final round of Asian qualification for the 2018 World Cup takes place on Thursday.

Here, Sport360 addresses five talking points over the games to come.

CAN UAE BOUNCE BACK?

It has already been a campaign to remember for the Whites. The win in Japan will live long in the memory. Then came the home game against Australia with the Asian champions just a little too clever and composed for the hosts, a narrow 1-0 defeat disappointing but certainly not disastrous for UAE.

The next two games could show what kind of campaign Mahdi Ali’s men are going to have. Six points are up for grabs and the full complement would demonstrate that the UAE can not only bounce back from the occasional bad result but are serious contenders for one of the top two spots.

Thailand have improved in recent years and were unlucky to lose 1-0 in Saudi Arabia in the opening game. Then came a 2-0 defeat at home to Japan in which the Samurai Blue showed their class. Yet, UAE have to take all three points to set themselves up for a trip to Saudi Arabia – that should be something special.

Follow every Asian Cup qualifier with our Live Score Centre

CAN QATAR STOP SON HEUNG-MIN & KEEP DREAM ALIVE?

When you’re hosting the 2022 World Cup, are desperate to qualify for 2018 but lose the first two games in the final round of qualification, a trip to South Korea is probably the last thing you need.

Throw one of the most in-form players in the world into the mix and Qatar have much to do at Suwon World Cup Stadium.

Son Heung-min had a sensational September for Tottenham Hotspur, scoring for fun. All four goals in the Premier League were memorable and then there was the winner at CSKA Moscow in the Champions League.

Qatar’s poor start, though the results against Iran and Uzbekistan were worse than the performances, spelled the end for Jose Daniel Carreno and brought a second spell for fellow Uruguayan Jorge Fossati.

A third defeat would not necessarily end Qatar’s chances of finishing in the top two and automatic qualification but it would make it incredibly difficult. Korea will start aggressively and have been talking of the importance of scoring first.

Qatar need to keep their composure and hit the Koreans on the counter. The chances will come and the hosts’ defence is vulnerable but the same will be true of Qatar when Son has the ball.

Follow every Asian Cup qualifier with our Live Score Centre

WILL SAUDI ARABIA SCORE FROM OPEN PLAY?

Saudi Arabia have probably performed worse than Qatar in the first two games yet are six points better off – such is football.

In the opener against Thailand in Riyadh, it took a late and soft penalty to defeat the War Elephants 1-0 when the visitors warranted at least a point.

Five days later, the first half against Iraq in Kuala Lumpur was worse and Bert van Marwijk’s men should have been more than a goal down at the break. Matters improved after the restart but with ten minutes remaining, still they trailed.

Then there were two more penalties, both converted by Nawaf Al Abed, to give the playmaker three goals in two games, all from the spot.

Saudi Arabia have struggled against Thailand and Iraq but now comes a much tougher test. Australia will be in Jeddah and looking to win. The Socceroos have impressed so far, especially in the recent 1-0 win against UAE in Abu Dhabi.

It may be better to be lucky than good but if there is to be a third win in three games, then Saudi Arabia will need to be both.

Follow every Asian Cup qualifier with our Live Score Centre

ARE IRAN CAPABLE OF ENDING UZBEKISTAN’S PERFECT START?

Uzbekistan sit on top of Group A with six points from the first two games. The White Wolves don’t get that much attention but have been going about their business nice and quietly with wins over Syria at home and then a fine three points in Qatar.

The Central Asians have come close to the global stage before but often struggle to beat the big teams in the big games. And in Asia, it doesn’t get much bigger than Iran. If Uzbekistan win this then the road to Russia will be lying wide open.

Team Melli and coach Carlos Queiroz can be tricky customers. At the very least, they are tough to beat; Iran are both happy to sit back and soak up the pressure or to inflict serious pressure themselves.

If Iran lose in Tashkent then they will be five points behind Uzbekistan after just three games. Can Uzbekistan handle the pressure?

Follow every Asian Cup qualifier with our Live Score Centre

CAN IRAQ AND SYRIA BREAK THEIR DUCK?

Iraq are one of three nations in the two groups yet to get a point on the board. Losing in Australia in the opening game was no surprise or disgrace.

To lose 2-1 to Saudi Arabia was a bit harder to take, especially as the 2007 Asian Cup winners had been the better side for much of the match but were undone by two late penalties.

It is hard to see Iraq getting anything in Japan but things have to improve soon.

Syria are also unable to play at home for security reasons and will be happy after taking a point of South Korea in the last game. A trip to China will not be easy but Syria are capable of getting something in Xian.

Follow every Asian Cup qualifier with our Live Score Centre

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Infantino's vision for World Cup team expansion is harmful

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Gianni Infantino.

It seems nobody at FIFA has ever heard of, or at least agreed with, the concept of less being more.

Gianni Infantino’s idea to expand the World Cup to 48 teams is wonderfully Blatter-esque in its ridiculousness but also a disappointing reminder that those who govern the world’s most popular sport don’t really care for the people who have helped elevate it to that status – you, I and the rest of the planet’s 3.5 billion football fans, who surely want to see a tournament based on quality, not quantity.

Because while Infantino and the delegates that are sure to follow in endorsing his plan will speak of how the bloated tournament will offer greater inclusion to the more marginal football nations, thus growing the “global game”, it just looks like yet another political manoeuvre with some nice sponsorship opportunities as an added bonus. Always a heady and winning combination in FIFA-land.

As Infantino said in Bogota on Monday, “It’s more than a competition, it’s a social event.” But while that socio-cultural backdrop is important and helps give World Cups their individual identity, what ultimately defines a tournament is the calibre of football. Nobody wants to watch a social event, Gianni.

Granted, the Swiss isn’t wanting 48 teams to enter the tournament proper – whatever that will eventually resemble – he just plans to create a one-game play-off round where 32 teams will be halved to join 16 automatic qualifiers. The World Cup is absolutely fine in a 32-team format. FIFA have hit upon a formula that is the gold standard when it comes to international tournaments. On the field, Brazil 2014 was one of the best tournaments this century, yet the desire remains to tinker with it for no reason other than self-interest.

There are a multitude of issues in football that need addressing – financial inequality, match fixing, doping, corruption, a lack of transparency with agents – while the fact this news comes a week after FIFA disbanded their anti-racism task force is beyond parody.

In the four tournaments since France ‘98, 14 nations have reached their first World Cup. The game is growing relatively organically. It doesn’t need this kind of charity to make emerging teams feel like they belong. It is, after all, a sporting competition and participation should be earned, not given.

But in their admirable or cynically exploitative desire to expand football beyond the boundaries of the traditional elite, FIFA have created a monster. Because as nations who have previously felt marginalised gain greater influence and power – often contrary to their standing in the game – that has to be reflected on the field. Those election-swinging votes from north and central America need satisfying, and what better way to do it than making them feel like the possibility of qualifying for a World Cup is that much more realistic.

Except, the caveat to this, which FIFA won’t be promoting, is that the format will more than likely safeguard those established teams who don’t make the initial 16.

Based on FIFA’s traditional seedings being via world rankings and history at previous tournaments, the likes of the Netherlands or England – who could realistically struggle to make the 16 – will receive favourable match-ups and be up against minnows who, in a one-off game, are more than likely to beat and therefore form the 32.

So while you’re presenting the illusion of being at a World Cup, the reality is fleeting – you’re there for 90 minutes. Meanwhile, the concern from the game’s elite is alleviated by the knowledge that, if anything, it gives them an extra chance of qualifying. Miss out on the 16, it’s okay, 90 minutes against Zambia should get you in.

But Infantino and his successors have their votes while sponsors and television companies have more markets to work in, and football slowly eats itself sick on the neverending desire for more.

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