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.