Five biggest shocks of AFC WCQs so far

Chris Jones 16:52 22/03/2017
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From Himalayan happiness to Emirati ecstasy, we bring you five of the biggest upsets so far in Asian qualifying for the 2018 World Cup in Russia.

Japan, Australia and South Korea may have had a monopoly over Asian World Cup qualification in the past few editions but it is not always smooth sailing for the big boys. Here are five examples of underdogs causing an upset on the road to Russia 2018.

SRI LANKA 0-1 BHUTAN (March 2015, first round)

In December 2012, Bhutan were the world’s worst national team according to the FIFA rankings, alongside San Marino and the Turks & Caicos Islands in 207th place.

Twelve years earlier, they had been beaten 20-0 by Kuwait in a friendly. Undeterred by these experiences, however, the Himalayan kingdom decided to enter World Cup qualifying for the first time in their history for Russia 2018.

Drawn against a Sri Lanka side 35 places above them in the rankings, it was expected to be a baptism of fire for Bhutan. But in the first leg in Colombo, the Dragon Boys produced a sensational upset.

Tshering Dorji’s historic 82nd-minute half-volley secured a 1-0 win on their qualifying debut and Bhutan followed it up with a 2-1 victory on home soil to clinch an unlikely passage to the second round.

It was an incredible result, something that became even more apparent in the next stage of qualifying when Bhutan conceded an astonishing 52 goals in eight games, punctuated by a 15-0 defeat to Qatar and a 12-0 defeat to China.

Still, the experience unquestionably had a positive impact on the mountain state, evidenced by their progress past Bangladesh in the 2019 AFC Asian Cup playoffs.

JAPAN 0-0 SINGAPORE (June 2015, second round)

Given Singapore had lost 13 of their previous 14 matches against Japan away from home, the visitors could have been forgiven for feeling a little trepidation when arriving in Saitama for their second outing of the second round of 2018 World Cup qualifying.

The record in competitive fixtures against Japan made for even worse reading: Played nine, lost nine.

Buoyed by a 4-0 away win against Cambodia in their first qualifier, however, Singapore refused to be overawed. Goalkeeper Izwan Mahbud was in inspirational form, producing a masterclass of a performance to deny the Blue Samurai time and again.

He made a total of 18 saves, the highlight of which was an acrobatic dive to tip over Keisuke Honda’s powerful second-half header.

It was a heroic performance from Singapore, ranked 102 places below their opponents at the time, as they claimed their first draw against Japan in 34 years.

The southeast Asians were unable to push on for the rest of the campaign, though, eventually finishing in third place in Group E behind Syria and the Blue Samurai, who won all of their next seven games.

JORDAN 2-0 AUSTRALIA (October 2015, second round)

Three years after springing a surprise defeat on Australia in 2014 World Cup qualifying, Jordan repeated the trick in Amman, putting the Socceroos to the sword in style.

Heading into the game, Australia were three from three in the second qualifying round and living up to their billing as overwhelming favourites to escape Group B.

But they came up against a stubborn Jordan side determined to make their mark. Just after half-time, centre-back Matthew Spiranovic sent Hamza Aldaradreh tumbling in the penalty box and Mohammed Abdel-Fattah stepped up to smash the spot-kick into the roof of the net.

The Amman International Stadium erupted, with then-FIFA presidential candidate Prince Ali among those applauding from the stands.

Six minutes from time, Aldaradreh got on the scoresheet himself – keeping his cool as the ball broke to slot past Adam Federici and secure all three points for Paul Put’s side.

It was the only match Australia failed to win in the second round and proved to be the highlight of the campaign for Jordan, who were thrashed 5-1 by the Socceroos in the return fixture in Sydney and failed to progress.

JAPAN 1-2 UAE (September 2016, third round)

Although the UAE had beaten Japan in the 2015 Asian Cup quarter-finals (that penalty shootout victory one of the nation’s finest football hours), the Blue Samurai were still big favourites when they welcomed Mahdi Ali’s men last September.

But just as they had done in the second qualifying round, Japan started their third in poor fashion.

The match actually began well for Japan, Keisuke Honda’s header giving them an early lead. But prolific Al Ahli frontman Ahmed Khalil hit back before half time, equalising with a free-kick. The Blue Samurai pressed hard but goalkeeper Khalid Eisa was in fine form and repelled the threat time and again.

One of those saves proved particularly controversial, Eisa spectacularly clawing away Asano Takuma’s shot with one hand only for replays to show that the ball had crossed the line. No goal was given and the UAE breathed a sigh of relief.

With their backs against the wall and very much against the run of play, UAE struck again. Ryota Oshima felled Ismail Al Hammadi inside the box and Khalil stepped up to take the spot-kick.

His audacious Panenka penalty sealed the spoils and UAE became only the second team in 20 years to inflict a home defeat on Japan in World Cup qualifying.

CHINA 0-1 SYRIA (October 2016, third round)

As the free-spending Chinese Super League has  grown in popularity and global stature in recent years, so too hasthe pressure on the national team to emulate the success.

With only one previous World Cup appearance in 2002, China have consistently underperformed in international football. Expectations were understandably high again when they hosted Syria, in the midst of civil war and with a fraction of China’s resources at their disposal.

But despite Syria’s internal strife and the fact that their home matches had been taking place 7,500km away in Malaysia, the national team had been performing admirably – making it through to the final round of qualifying for the first time in 30 years.  

An opening defeat to Uzbekistan was followed by a hugely commendable draw with South Korea; against China in Xi’an they went one better.

The winning goal came courtesy of an absolute howler from China goalkeeper Gu Chao, who horribly misjudged a through ball – colliding with team-mate Jiang Zhipeng as he attempted to clear on the 18-yard line.

It still needed Syria striker Mahmoud Al-Mawas to show a poacher’s instinct and he duly obliged, knocking the ball into an empty net and wheeling away in celebration.

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