Four and a half teams from the Asian qualification competition will progress to take part in the 2018 FIFA World Cup, to be held in Russia next summer.
Where does the half come from? That refers to one team which will contest a play-off with another qualifier from the CONCACAF regional zone, based in North America, to determine who goes through.
Spanning four rounds, the road to Russia for the 46 Asian teams is a long one, with 212 matches having been being played. There is already one team which is in the hat for the World Cup draw – Iran romped home in Group A of the two qualification groups which make up the third round. They have won six of their eight matches, and are yet to be defeated.
In this blog, we take a look at Iran and the other countries in hot contention to reach the finals.
After Brazil, Iran were the second team in the world to qualify for Russia 2018. It will mark the first time they have qualified for consecutive World Cups, following their appearance at Brazil 2014, where they managed a draw with Nigeria, and only lost to Argentina thanks to a late Lionel Messi strike. They certainly have an experienced man at the helm – Carlos Queiroz, the former Portugal manager and assistant to Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United, also guided them to the 2014 finals. Watch out for hotshot Mehdi Taremi, who has 10 goals from just 19 international starts, and was top goalscorer in the Iranian First Division.
The most distinguished team in Group A, having qualified for nine World Cups down the years, are still battling to qualify for Russia. South Korea are second behind Iran at the time of writing, and in pole position to grab the second automatic qualification spot. The problem is that they face almost the hardest possible run in – playing Iran themselves and third placed Uzbekistan in their final two games. They will be hoping their star players, such as Tottenham Hotspur’s Son Heung-min, can fire them to second spot.
Poised right behind Korea in Group A, Uzbekistan are in with a sniff of qualifying for the first ever World Cup Finals. At the very least, they will hope to grab third place, putting them in the fourth round with hope of progressing to the Inter Confederation play-offs. The central Asian nation have been on the cusp of the finals before. In the run-up to 2014 they reached the fourth round, only to lose to Jordan in a tie which was settled by a dramatic penalty shoot out.
One of Asia’s traditional heavyweight’s, Japan are leading Group B at the time of writing, and with a wealth of talent playing their trade in Europe’s top leagues, they will fancy their chances of qualification. They have qualified for the last five finals, progressing to the Round of 16 in both 2002 and 2010. However, if they lose to Australia in their final group game, and Saudi Arabia win, things could get tricky.
While they are officially based in the FIFA region of Oceania, being permitted to qualify through Asia has been a blessing for Australian football, allowing them to test themselves against superior opposition. The Socceroos, who won the 2015 Asian Cup and have qualified for the last three World Cups, are right in the mix at the top of Group B, with only one point separating three teams. If they can muster a win against Japan in their final game, they will be surely be home and dry.
Another team with a rich World Cup heritage, Saudi Arabia’s iconic moment at the finals was Sami Al Jaber’s wonderful solo goal at USA 1994. Since then the three time Asian Cup winners have reached the finals on four occasions and they will be hoping that a squad of mainly home-based players can secure them a spot in Russia 2018. Two tough games, against Japan and the UAE, remain for the Green Falcons.