March 21 – With attention switching to World Cup qualifiers this week, the battle for a place at the Russia 2018 finals is no more competitive than in Asia where AFC qualification has reached the half way point. There are no runaway leaders and the traditional regional dominance of Australia, Japan and South Korea is under threat.
Of the 12 countries battling in two groups for the four automatic qualifying berths and the one play-off place, seven countries are within two points of each other, while Syria are still outside contenders in Group A.
In Group B the top of table is even tighter with the leading four teams separated by just one point. Saudi Arabia top the group on goal difference ahead of Japan, while Australia are third on goal difference ahead of United Arab Emirates.
Saudi Arabia, bidding to reach a fifth World Cup finals, face bottom of the table but fast-improving Thailand on Thursday, while Japan have a difficult tie against the UAE. Japan lost to UAE 2-1 in their away leg
Australia, currently clinging on to a play-off spot, are the group’s draw specialists and have a tough away match against Iraq in Tehran, before returning home to face the UAE on March 28, the team they are currently only ahead of on goal difference.
Japan and Saudi both have what on paper looks like easier home ties against Thailand and Iraq in their second qualifiers of the week. The pressure looks most likely to be on Australia to keep in the hunt for an automatic qualifying spot.
Iran and Korea, hold the automatic qualifying positions in Group A, and will travel to Qatar and China respectively on Thursday. Both would expect to win, but form and history has meant little in this qualifying campaign to date and Qatar and China both have big ambitions in international football that have not been matched by their qualifying results so far.
The other match-up in this group sees fourth meet third in a crucial encounter between Syria and Uzbekistan in Malaysia. Uzbekistan, who have never qualified for a World Cup finals but have qualified for every Asian Cup since the country’s independence, face Syria.
A win for Uzbekistan would keep them in contention for automatic qualification and virtually secure a play-off place. A win for Syria – who have also never qualified for a World Cup finals – would put them back into contention for a play-off spot, just one point behind the Uzbeks.
The second round of fixtures on March 28 sees Syria play South Korea in what is a make or break five days for the Syrians.
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