October 8 – Saudi Arabia moved a step closer to 2022 World Cup participation with a landmark 1-0 victory against Japan to maintain a perfect record with nine points from three matches in Group B in Asia’s third round of qualifiers.
Saudi top Group B with Australia after three games. Japan – ranked 26th in the world – are third in the group but have a gaping gap of six points to the top two. Japan face Australia on Tuesday which for them is looking like a must win fixture.
The Asian Qualifiers will see the top two teams in each group progress automatically to the Qatar 2022 finals with the third placed team playing off for the intercontinental play off place.
The Saudi win topped a spectacular few days for the country that has taken major steps towards settling its dispute with Qatari media giant beIN Sports – a hangover from the geo-politics of the blockade of Qatar – while the country also gained control of Newcastle United in the English Premier League. Potentially a significant step towards improving its image and reputation as a better behaved global citizen.
From a performance perspective the win also mirrors the Saudi’s recent investments in its own sports infrastructure to create a competitive and sustainable flow of talent into its domestic game, with the aim of driving its national team.
Japan under qualifying pressure
The Japanese team have long been an Asian powerhouse but they are wobbling precariously. Theirs was an often sloppy performance that the Green Falcons punished with a second-half goal from Firas Al-Buraikan.
“I was so happy to score the winning goal,” said Al-Buraikan. “Coach Renard told me to put pressure on the opposition defense and I managed to take advantage of a mistake.”
The win was played out in front of 45,000 fans in Jeddah, the first substantial crowd at a national team match since the pandemic in the Arab Kingdom. Above all, it demonstrated that Saudi Arabia have improved since Herve Renard took over as coach in 2019.
His Japanese counterpart Hajime Moriyasu will be under huge pressure, going into Tuesday’s blockbuster qualifier against Australia, who defeated Oman 3-1. The Blue Samurai have participated in six consecutive times global finals since their debut in the 1998 World Cup in France. “We got tired and lost our rhythm, that’s when they capitalized and scored,” said Moriyasu. “If we don’t give up, I believe we can still win a ticket to the World Cup.”
Iran take group lead
In Group A, Iran have a perfect record after defeating the United Arab Emirates 1-0 in Dubai, denting Bert van Marwijk’s hopes of reaching the finals. In the 70th minute, Mehdi Taremi got the only goal of the match.
On seven points, South Korea sit in second after a nervy win against Syria at home.
Tottenham Hotspur star Son Heung-min delivered an 89th-minute winner in a 2-1 victory. The Koreans have yet to convince and face their biggest test yet on Tuesday when they travel to Tehran’s Azadi Stadium.
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