By Paul Nicholson
July 17 – The draw for Round Two of the Asian Qualifiers for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar and the AFC Asian Cup China 2023 was made in Kuala Lumpur earlier today and threw up some intriguing match-ups, as well as a couple of fixtures that will necessitate some smart geo-politics in order to get the matches played.
Conducted by FIFA Director of Competitions Christian Unger and Australian legend Tim Cahill, the AFC’s Iran pooled in Group C alongside Iraq, Bahrain, Hong Kong and Cambodia.
Iran and Iraq played each other in one of the most fast-paced and exciting games of the Asian Cup in January. That game, at times fractious, ended 0-0, with both teams ending the group level on points but with Iran on top due to goal difference.
The eight group winners and four best runners-up will qualify for the AFC Asian Cup China 2023 Finals and the final round of qualifying for the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022.
The next best 24 teams from the second round of the joint qualifiers will compete in a separate competition for the remaining 12 slots in the 24-team AFC Asian Cup China 2023.
There is one wrinkle to the qualification. Should Qatar win their group, the seven other group winners and five best second-placed sides will advance to the final round of qualifying for the 2022 World Cup – Qatar have already qualified as hosts.
Qatar, who brilliantly won the Asian Cup in the UAE, will be firm favourites to win their group, being drawn alongside Bangladesh, Oman, India and Afghanistan. The draw looked on the geo-politics in their regional favourably, not pairing them with either of their blockading neighbours Saudi Arabia or the UAE.
Saudi Arabia do have a more problematic travel schedule being drawn with Uzbekistan, Palestine, Yemen and Singapore in Group D. Saudi were drawn with Palestine for the 2018 qualifiers but refused to travel to the West Bank, with the Palestine home fixture being played in Jordan (actually where a number of the Palestinian players are based). It also seems unlikely Yemen will be in a position to host games in country and the Saudis will likely be reticent to travel there even if they were able to, due to the bombing of the country by Saudi military.
Elsewhere, the AFC’s traditional leaders look to have relatively straightforward draws with Japan, Asia’s best performers in the 2018 World Cup where they were defeated by Belgium in the Round of 16, drawn in Group F with Kyrgyz Republic, Tajikistan, Myanmar and Mongolia.
Korea Republic, who have appeared in every edition of the FIFA World Cup Finals since 1986, will have a trickier opponent in Lebanon who were one of the breakout teams of the Asian Cup, but should find their passage easier against DPR Korea, Turkmenistan and Sri Lanka in Group H.
China, the host for the AFC Asian Cup 2023 and with serious 2022 qualification ambition, have been drawn in perhaps the most difficult qualifying group with Syria, Philippines, Maldives and Guam.
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