With three games remaining in the third round of qualification for the 2018 World Cup, six Asian nations now have realistic hopes of seizing one of the four automatic spots in Russia, six do not. Things are going to start getting very tense indeed.
Seven games have been played and when you look at Group A, it is hard to know what jumps out first. Is it Iran’s defence that remains unbreached after 630 minutes of action? Or is it Qatar, the 2022 host already out of the running?
Iran have been the stand-outs of the round so far for the controlled manner in which they have crafted a four-point lead above South Korea in second. With just the top two going to Russia automatically, this is a cushion that will surely see Team Melli to a first-ever successive World Cup.
This partly because nobody can score against Iran, a dry spell that goes to over 900 minutes in qualification. Carlos Queiroz has created a machine that still has flair in attack with the likes of Sardar Azmoun and a win against Uzbekistan in June in Tehran will make the inevitable, official.
Qatar are now just wishing for it to all be over. Nobody in the country wanted to be the first in the modern era to reach a first World Cup due to the fact it is staging one but that is an unwanted accolade coming Doha’s way. The 2022 hosts have just four points from seven games and automatic qualification is out of the question.
Finishing third would be a much bigger surprise than the FIFA announcement back in 2010 that awarded the tournament to the country. Qatar will have to win all three of their games and hope that Uzbekistan don’t collect more than one with China and Syria not picking up many either. It is unlikely to the point of impossibility.
Syria’s 1-0 loss to South Korea in Seoul will leave them regretting missed chances to get a point that would have kept them in touch with the second-placed team. That loss means that Syria are almost out of the running for the automatic spots and are unlikely to close a five-point gap with three games remaining, especially when one of those is in Tehran.
Uzbekistan and Korea are breathing easier after nervy wins. These two will fight it out for the second spot just as they did four years ago. Korea edged it then and are doing so again now, with one point more. It could well go down to the final game between the two in Tashkent on September 5.
In Group B, the quartet that were chasing the top two spots has become a trio. UAE lost 2-0 to Australia in Sydney to be seven points behind the top two of Saudi Arabia and Japan and four points off Australia in third.
Their campaign is all but over and Mahdi Ali knew as much when he resigned in the post-match press conference. There has been serious progress made in his five years as head coach but with a talented team falling well short of its objective of making a World Cup, it was not a surprise that he stepped down. Perhaps the time was right as many felt that he had taken the team as far as he could.
With Iraq and Thailand struggling at the bottom, the focus shifts to the top three who all won on Tuesday.
Saudi Arabia and Japan have 16 points, while Australia have 13 but there is more to this than meets the eye. The Socceroos have two of their last three matches at home.
The next game is huge and it sees the Saudis heading to Adelaide in June. Bert Van Marwijk had helped the Green Falcons recover some of their former glory and the team has been picking up points at a steady rate. The luck has been there when needed and they have beaten the lower teams in the group. When you do that, you are always going to be in contention.
But whether you can get over the line depends on results against the big boys – in this case Japan and Australia. They are the only teams that Saudi Arabia have dropped points against so far, but avoid defeat Down Under in three months’ time and the dream is on. Lose there and third-placed and the play-offs could beckon.
Japan are looking comfortable in second and were too good for Thailand even if 4-0 was slightly harsh on the visitors. A win against Iraq next time out will put the Samurai Blue on the brink of a sixth successive World Cup.
A huge fire has damaged Chinese Super League club Shanghai Shenhua’s stadium.
Video footage showed flames and smoke pouring out of the side of the Hongkou Stadium as fire-fighters battled to tackle the blaze.
The club, managed by Gus Poyet, boast the likes of Carlos Tevez in their squad, the Argentinian having signed over the winter on reported wages of £615,000 a week.
China’s state news agency Xinhua reportedly said the fire had not affected the stands or the pitch and that investigations were ongoing to determine the cause. Local media did not report any injuries.
The Chinese Super League season is two games old, and Shanghai’s next home game is due to be against Changchun Yatai on April 16.
JAPAN TAKE REVENGE ON UAE
It was a cool, clinical performance from Japan to put that opening game lose at the hands of UAE to bed. A goal in each half was enough to take all three points from a tricky away trip.
For Mahdi Ali’s men, it was a case of ‘What if?’ Things may have been different had Ahmed Khalil, the man who tormented the Samurai Blue at Saitama Stadium, had played. And they may have been different had Ali Mabkhout or Ismail Al Hammadi taken two big chances in each half.
Omar Abdulrahman was not as influential as fans hoped and, all in all, UAE can’t have many complaints. The hosts worked hard but never really got in the game after Yuya Kubo put Japan ahead early in the game.
UAE need something from their trip to Sydney otherwise even finishing in third-place will be tough.
SAUDIS LOOK GOOD FOR RUSSIA
Saudi Arabia may have missed the last two World Cups but they are showing few signs of allowing that become three. The Green Falcons picked up a comfortable 3-0 win in Bangkok over Thailand, even if the scoreline was flattering.
Thailand may be bottom with a point to their name but they are no pushovers. They demonstrated as much in September as they were unlucky to lose 1-0 in Saudi Arabia to a late – and very soft –penalty. Then they deserved more than to draw 2-2 with Australia in November.
But this was a clinical performance from Bert van Marwijk’s men and the big players stepped forward when needed.
Mohammed Al Sahlawi pounced from close range in the 25th minute to score goal number 15 of the qualification campaign so far. Thailand tried their utmost to get back into the game but the Saudis held them at bay and got two late goals to ensure that the final moments were comfortable.
Under the Dutchman, Saudi Arabia have a new-found confidence, swagger and ability to stay cool under pressure and take their chances when they come. There are some tough tests remaining in a tight group but at the moment, fans are right to believe that World Cup number five may just be around the corner.
LIPPI SERVICE MAKES DIFFERENCE FOR CHINA
China had only ever beaten South Korea once in 32 past meetings but then they didn’t have Marcello Lippi on the bench. This time around, the Italian World Cup winner masterminded a 1-0 win over the old enemy.
While there was plenty of defending in Changsha after Yu Dabao had headed the hosts into a 34th minute lead, it was not of the desperate kind. China were better-organised and just better than their more illustrious opponents. Korea had chances but neither in quantity or quality.
Korea may have been poor but this was a game that the old China may not have lost but would not have won. Compact and hard-working, they defended in numbers when they had to but were also not scared to commit men to counter-attacks.
AUSSIES NEED TO START WINNING AGAIN
The good thing about Australia under Ange Postecoglou is that wherever they go, they look to get on the front foot and win games. The problem is that the Socceroos have failed to do that in the last four qualifiers. A 1-1 tie against Iraq makes it four draws from the last four.
And the visitors to Tehran, where Iraq currently play their home games, will be thankful to come away with a point as this was far from a vintage performance on a poor surface.
Australia still have three of the last four games at home and will still be confident on going through but each point dropped makes the room for maneuver that much smaller.
Being three points off the pace means that Australia can’t afford many more slip-ups.
NOBODY CAN STOP IRAN
Or score against them. Team Melli are yet to concede a goal in the six games of qualifying and are now four points clear at the top of Group A. Another 1-0 win— the fourth so far – came in Qatar.
It was a deserved three points and Carlos Queiroz’s men were wasteful in front of goal but Mehdi Taremi kept his nerve seven minutes into the second-half and then it was game over.
It is now hard to see anything other than a first-ever second successive World Cup appearance for Iran who are currently in the middle of a perfect qualification campaign. Three points will be expected at home to China on Tuesday.