Which Asian teams have best chance of making last 16?

John Duerden John Duerden

John Duerden assesses the chances of Asia’s representatives at the upcoming World Cup.

There are five Asian teams at the 2018 World Cup, the highest ever. Yet quantity does not equal quality and it remains to be seen which of the quintet have the best chance to make it out of the group stage and into the last 16. Time will be the best referee in determining what happens but there is nothing wrong with a quick discussion about who may make it and who may fall short.

5. Saudi Arabia

Ranking: 67
Group A: Russia (66) , Uruguay, (17) Egypt (46)

Reasons to be cheerful: The group could have been a lot trickier. Russia are by some distance the weakest of the top seeds and playing the hosts on the opening day of the tournament may be a blessing. Uruguay are good but not quite as good as in recent years. Egypt are no pushovers but getting a result against their Arabian rivals is not impossible. There have been some decent results and performances in recent weeks, expectations are not cripplingly high and overall fitness and work ethic is improving.

But: The Saudis are the lowest ranked of all the 32 teams, the squad is entirely domestic-based, coach Juan Antonio Pizzi is the third in the past nine months and the lack of quality strikers is such a problem that Pizzi has only selected two. The 3-0 loss to Peru on Sunday was a blow after some encouraging performances.

4. South Korea

Ranking: 60
Group F: Germany (1), Sweden (23), Mexico (15)

Reasons to be cheerful: Korea doesn’t mind playing against teams from northern Europe and is capable of getting something against the Swedes. The Taeguk Warriors also have a decent historic record against Mexico and then there is the hope that Germany will already be in the second round by the time they meet. If Son Heung-min, Lee Seung-woo and Lee Jae-sung all perform to their potential – quite a big if – then there is a chance especially as the usual pressure to succeed is absent this time.

But: The team is short of quality in a number of areas as was apparent in a qualification campaign that is best forgotten. Preparation has not been great, though not terrible, and the recent rash of injuries has been cruel. On top of that, there is a defence that can look as confused as first time visitors to a Korean BBQ restaurant.

3. Iran

Ranking: 36
Group B: Morocco (42), Portugal (4), Spain (8)

Reasons to be cheerful: As Asia’s best team, Iran have plenty to be happy about. The team glided through qualification and boast a top-rated coach in Carlos Queiroz who has been in place for seven years. During that time, Team Melli have become increasingly cosmopolitan, internationally experienced and respected around the world.

But: The group is tough. The opening game against Morocco is not going to be easy but it is seen as by some distance the easiest. Fail to win that and then Iran are going to have to defeat either Spain or Portugal. If the team were firing on all cylinders then there would be more confidence but preparations have gone from uninspiring to almost unbelievable with friendlies cancelled and a 2-1 recent loss to Turkey hinted that the defence may not be as rock solid as assumed.

2. Japan

Ranking: 61
Group H: Colombia (16), Senegal (28), Poland (10)

Reasons to be cheerful: The group is open and passable. Japan are packed full of talent with unrivalled European experience and household names such as Shinji Kagawa, Keisuke Honda and Shinji Okazaki even if they are no longer as influential as they were. The defence looks pretty settled and there are options in midfield. Fractious coach Vahid Halilhodzic was fired in April and team spirit should improve as a result.

But: The performance in the recent friendly defeat by Ghana was depressing. In-form players have not all been chosen and Japan look stale and short of ideas. New coach Akira Nishino may be seen as a safe pair of hands but does he have the ability to inspire the players to perform to the necessary levels? The big names have not always produced the goods in recent years.

1. Australia

Ranking: 40
Group C: France (7) , Peru (11), Denmark (12)

Reasons to be cheerful: Bert Van Marwijk is not a man to excite and enthuse a nation that had become accustomed to the more open football under predecessor Ange Postecoglou but he has led his native Netherlands to a World Cup final. But what you get is a man who will do whatever it takes to get the right results. Last week’s 4-0 win over the Czech Republic was hugely encouraging, great for confidence and showed that the Socceroos don’t rely on Tim Cahill for goals. Peru and Denmark are good teams but nothing to be scared of.

But: France are a tough opener and are capable of handing the Aussies a deflating defeat just as Germany did in 2010. Peru are flying high with the return of Paolo Guerrero while Denmark have a top-class matchwinner in Christian Eriksen. This Socceroo edition does not have the overall quality of past teams and will have to be at their best.