War-torn Syria as well as China, the ultimate sleeping giants, are both aiming to pull off a near-miracle as Asian qualifying for the 2018 World Cup heads into a final showdown on Tuesday.
Among Asia’s heavyweights, Australia’s progress is far from assured and South Korea are in danger of missing out on their first World Cup since 1982 in what will be a nail-biting last round of group games.
Perhaps indicating rising standards in the region, competition for Asia’s 4.5 places at next year’s Russia World Cup has been unusually intense, with only Japan and Iran qualified so far.
Group A is particularly unpredictable as South Korea, Syria, Uzbekistan and Marcello Lippi’s China remain in the running for either the second automatic berth, or a place in the play-offs by finishing third.
Syria, despite playing their home games in Malaysia to avoid their country’s bitter civil war, occupy the play-off spot after a win and a draw against China, wins over Uzbekistan and Qatar, and draws with South Korea and Iran.
They play arguably the night’s toughest fixture — away to Iran, who are yet to concede a goal — as they look to stay ahead of Uzbekistan and China, and perhaps even leap-frog South Korea into second place.
Chinese success would be just as eye-catching if they manage to rise from fifth in the group to snatch a play-off spot and stay in the hunt for just their second World Cup appearance.
China were largely written off after defeats to South Korea, Syria and Uzbekistan, but they are reborn since Lippi’s arrival last October, winning twice to keep their hopes just about alive.
If they beat Qatar handily, and South Korea and Iran win against Uzbekistan and Syria respectively, 77th-ranked China can celebrate a major boost in their grand plan to become one of the world’s top football nations.
“I always tell my players, when there is still a theoretical chance, we have no reason to give up. We should make every effort to achieve it,” Lippi said, after last week’s 1-0 win against Uzbekistan.
– Bogey team –
South Korea, looking to hang onto second place in Group A, should be favourites against Uzbekistan but they are playing in Tashkent and against a team still smarting from their defeat to China.
Uzbekistan have a torrid history against the Koreans, who beat them to an automatic qualifying spot for both the 2006 and 2014 World Cups. The Uzbeks lost in the play-offs each time.
“This is our last chance. Either we beat South Korea or we should end football in our country,” said Uzbek captain Odil Ahmedov, according to the FIFA website.
“They’re our bogey team, it’s a fact,” Ahmedov added. “But we’re playing at home and we have a duty to our fans.”
Australia’s campaign is also in the balance after last week’s 2-0 defeat to Japan left them third in Group B, behind Saudi Arabia on goal difference.
The Asian champions will expect to beat bottom-placed Thailand in Melbourne, and they will hope Japan do them a favour by keeping the Saudis in check in Jeddah.
But a talented United Arab Emirates side also has an outside chance of overhauling Australia with a big win over Iraq, meaning Ange Postecoglou’s side cannot afford any slip-ups.
“We have just got to play well,” Postecoglou told reporters. “If you don’t play well you leave things to chance, and we don’t want to leave things to chance.”
The top two in Group A and B gain automatic entry to the World Cup, while the two third-placed teams face each other — with the winner going into a play-off against the fourth-placed side from the CONCACAF federation.