Four down, one to go? What next for Asia’s World Cup hopefuls

Gabriel Tan Gabriel Tan

The third round of Asian qualifying for the 2018 FIFA World Cup concluded on Tuesday and it is Iran, Japan, Korea Republic and Saudi Arabia who will be heading to Russia next summer.

However, there is potentially one more spot up for grabs and it will be reigning Asian Cup champions Australia and surprise package Syria vying for that.

With just nine months to go before Russia 2018 kicks off, FOX Sports Asia looks ahead at what happens next for the continent’s World Cup hopefuls.

THE LOWDOWN

Iran were the first side to book their ticket to Russia, a feat they accomplished as early as June with two games to spare following a 2-0 triumph over Uzbekistan.

Overall, it was a dominant campaign from Team Melli as they were the only side to go through the entire third round of qualification without tasting defeat, notching six wins and four draws in Group A.

Japan then followed them with a game to spare following last Thursday’s 2-0 win over Australia, and they managed to finish top of Group B despite a final-day loss to the Saudis.

That result enabled Saudi Arabia to overtake Australia in second spot by virtue of a superior goal difference, ensuring they will be making their first World Cup appearance since 2006.

Finally, Korea Republic were the fourth team to seal automatic qualification albeit in underwhelming fashion.

With plenty on the line for both sides on Tuesday, the Taegeuk Warriors contrived to play out a 0-0 stalemate with Uzbekistan yet it was enough to get them over the line.

Despite winning three of their last four, Australia had to settle for third spot in Group B.

And, in quite remarkable fashion, the Syrians netted a 93rd-minute equaliser to force a 2-2 draw with the Iranians on the last day to pip Uzbekistan to a playoff berth.

THE FUTURE

The Asian World Cup qualifiers have already produced plenty of excitement and it will not be more than a month before more drama is delivered.

October 5 and 10 are the dates when Syria and Australia will face off for a chance to possibly be the continent’s fifth representative in Russia.

The winner of that tie will have to negotiate past another two legs against the fourth-placed side in CONCACAF’s final round of qualifiers.

As things stand, that would be United States, but only one point separates them, third-placed Panama and Honduras in fifth spot.

THE CONTENDERS

Iran

There was no denying that Iran produced the strongest performance of the lot, even notching a World Cup qualifying record of 12 successive clean sheets before that gripping 2-2 draw with Syria.

The Iranians have quality all over the park but benefit mostly from being a disciplined and intelligent unit, which manager Carlos Quieroz deserves plenty of credit for.

The clear standout in the team is undoubtedly Rubin Kazan striker Sardar Azmoun, still only 22 but – with 21 internationals goals to his name – already Team Melli’s fifth-highest all-time scorer.

Japan

Arguably Asia’s standout team in the past two decades, Japan have qualified for every World Cup since their 1998 debut but appear to be entering an uncertain period.

Long-term stalwarts like Keisuke Honda, Shinji Okazaki, Makoto Hasebe and Eiji Kawashima are all on the wrong side of 30 and, while still quality players, their influence has began to wane.

The Japanese have never had problems producing talented youngsters but Yoichiro Kakitani and Ryo Miyaichi are two classic examples proving that not all of them go on to realise their full potential.

This is likely to be the World Cup swansong for Honda and company and they will be looking to go out on a high, although it could also be crucial for the future that the likes of Takuma Asano and Yosuke Ideguchi all gain valuable experience.

Korea Republic

They may have done it in the end but four wins from ten qualifiers is just not a good enough tally for the traditional heavyweights, who hold the Asian record with nine previous appearances at the World Cup.

On paper, there is still plenty of quality in the team, especially from the likes of Son Heung-min, Ki Sung-yueng and Koo Ja-cheol, but the South Koreans have just struggled to find form.

This was best illustrated in the 0-0 draw with Uzbekistan when, with plenty at stake and needing a goal, the best option to throw on was veteran striker Lee Dong-gook, a legend from yesteryear but evidently no longer the marksman he once was.

The Taegeuk Warriors have excellent World Cup pedigree having reached the knockout round in two of the past four editions, including their memorable fourth-place finish on home soil back in 2002.

One gets the feeling, though, that much improvement will have to follow if Shin Tae-yong has any chance of leading his charges to a similar achievement next June.

Saudi Arabia

It was by no means the most comfortable of roads to the World Cup and Saudi Arabia did not make things easy for themselves, having lost three out of five qualifiers ahead of their final match against the Japanese.

But, when it really mattered, the Green Falcons rose the top by claiming a vital victory in front of 62,000 fans at the King Abdullah Sports City.

The scorer of that crucial goal – Fahad Al-Muwallad – is promising to develop into one of Asian football’s finest in the years to come, although there is no current shortage of established talent at Bert van Marwijk’s disposal.

Osama Hawsawi is a inspirational and steadfast presence at the back, while Taisir Al-Jassim and Nawaf Al-Abed provide plenty of guile and creativity in the final third.

Yet, with Saudi Arabia’s primary striker Mohammad Al-Sahlawi struggling for form recently, netting just twice after a superb 14 goals in the previous round of qualification, perhaps Al-Muwallad’s time could come sooner than expected.

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