«Reuters» (SYDNEY)Dreams will be fulfilled and others dashed across the continent as a large part of the Asian contingent for next year’s World Cup Finals in Russia is decided in the last two rounds of qualifying over eight days from Tuesday.
Iran qualified with three rounds remaining while Iraq and Thailand can no longer advance, but nine countries still have a chance, however slender, of claiming a ticket to Russia for next year’s Finals.
Of those, Japan, South Korea, Saudi Arabia, Australia, United Arab Emirates, Uzbekistan and Syria could still clinch the direct qualification that comes from finishing in the top two in each of the two third round groups.
Qatar, the host of the subsequent World Cup in 2022, and ambitious China will be playing long odds to secure third place in Group A and the tricky playoff route to soccer’s global showpiece that goes with it.
The third placed teams in each group play each other in a two-legged playoff in October with the aggregate winner facing the fourth-placed team from the Central and North America (CONCACAF) qualifying in November.
While United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia kick off just over a week of crunch ties in Al-Ain Tuesday, Japan has the best chance of being the fourth team to reach the Finals when it hosts Asian champion Australia Thursday.
A point clear of the Saudis and Socceroos in Group B, victory in Saitama will secure Samurai Blue a spot at the Finals for the sixth successive tournament going back to 1998.
Its South Korean neighbor has an even longer pedigree and can clinch a ninth straight appearance if it beats Iran in Seoul Thursday and Uzbekistan lose to Marcello Lippi’s China in Wuhan.
Qualification has not run smooth for either of the East Asian powers, however, with coach Vahid Halilhodzic under heavy pressure in Japan and South Korea under the new management of Shin Tae-yong after the sacking of Uli Stielike last month.
Uzbekistan coach Samvel Babayan has promised his team will be ruthless against China, which needs a win to stay alive, as it looks to set up a winner-takes-all clash against the South Koreans in Tashkent on Aug. 31.
The Uzbeks are third in Group A, a point behind South Korea, and targeting a first appearance at soccer’s global showpiece.
Syria, which has been playing its home matches in Malaysia because of the civil war, is three points behind Uzbekistan but is still in with a shout of automatic qualification if it beats Qatar in Melaka Thursday.
Defeat would end Qatar’s slender hopes of a third-place finish and consign it to the ignominy of becoming the first World Cup host not to have previously qualified for a tournament.
Saudi Arabia has the strongest chance of representing the Arabian Gulf in Russia as it looks to reach the Finals for the first time since 2006.
Its tie against their Emirati neighbor gives it a chance to move to the top of the group pending the Saitama clash and it has the comfort of knowing it will host the Japanese in Jeddah in its final qualifier next week.
The UAE, which concludes its campaign in Jordan against Iraq next week, still has a mathematical chance of a top-two finish but is sweating on the fitness of inspirational midfielder Omar Abdulrahman ahead of its match against the Saudis.
Australia, which has appeared at the last three Finals, is without injured skipper Mile Jedinak for its final two qualifiers but will be happy to take a point home from Japan ahead of next week’s clash with group whipping boys Thailand.