The second half of Asia’s final round of qualifiers for the 2018 World Cup in Russia get underway tonight with a powder-keg Group A clash between China and South Korea.
China vs South Korea
Tensions will be high as China attempt to kick-start their qualifying campaign with a home tie against South Korea in Changsha on Thursday, although a lot of the anger has nothing to do with events on the pitch.
With diplomatic tensions between the two nations running high over Korea’s decision to host a US anti-missile system there will be unprecedented security for what promises to be an explosive clash.
China sit bottom of Group A after just two draws from their opening five ties, including a 3-2 defeat to the Koreans, although they are hoping the appointment of Marcello Lippi back in October can help them pull off the impossible.
History is against them – China have only beaten South Korea once in 31 meetings.
And even if the hostile atmosphere can spur Lippi’s men to a second win, it is unlikely to make much difference to their chances of qualifying.
South Korean coach Uli Stielike’s team already has experience of partisan stadiums having already played in front of 80,000 home fans in Tehran – a match they lost 1-0.
Still, the German is hoping his players can learn from that.
“I will try to make sure our players won’t be influenced by the stadium atmosphere or other off-pitch situations,” he said.
“I think that experience will serve as a good lesson for this match against China. The players should now know how to handle that kind of atmosphere.”
Syria vs Uzbekistan
Third-placed Uzbekistan will travel to Malaysia to play Syria hoping to capitalise on any slip ups by South Korea. The Uzbeks are in third place on nine points, just one behind second-placed Korea and two behind leaders Iran.
Syria, who are without suspended defender Alaa Al Shbli, go into the tie knowing that a win will open the group up and help them close the gap on the top three to just one point.
Qatar vs Iran
Iran will look to maintain both their unbeaten record and position at the top of the group when they travel to Qatar.
Carlos Queiroz’s side would be happy with a repeat of the opening Group A game when they defeated Qatar 2-0 in Tehran, although the Qataris have turned things around with a win and a draw after a disastrous start to the campaign saw them suffer three straight defeats.