Asia’s big four – the quartet that represented the continent at the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil – face familiar foes as the third qualifying round reaches the third match day on Thursday. High-flying Australia are hoping to continue their 100 per cent start with an away win against Saudi Arabia, while both Korea Republic and Japan will be aiming to prolong their dominant record against Qatar and Iraq, respectively, in this campaign. Iran, meanwhile, arrive in Tashkent seeking to bring Uzbekistan’s winning streak to a close.
Elsewhere, China PR and Syria enter their first qualifying meeting with each other desperately seeking their first victory. Winless Thailand are, for their part, left with few options but to win in the United Arab Emirates if they are to keep their already-diminishing hopes alive. Lets take a closer look at these enticing encounters.
Both sides enter this meeting looking to bounce back. Uli Stielike’s hosts may have remained undefeated in this competition, but a narrow win over China and a goalless draw against Syria are a far cry from their expectations. Under even greater pressure are the visiting Qataris, whose two opening losses not only put their campaign in jeopardy but also cost coach Daniel Carreno his job. Under new boss Jorge Fossati, the 2022 FIFA World Cup hosts are determined to revive their fortunes with victory.
The home team enjoy a superior head-to-head record with four wins and two draws from seven past meetings in all competitions. Notably, the South Koreans won home and away against the Qataris in the same stage in qualifying for Brazil 2014. Despite this, they can’t underestimate their opponents, who became the first team to progress to the final qualifying round by winning their group with two games to spare. With the Syria draw sounding a warning note, Stielike has made several changes to his squad. In-form Tottenham Hotspur Son Heung-min is back to provide the drive, while Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors duo Kim Bo-kyung and Kim Shin-wook have earned call-ups on the back of their brilliant performances in the AFC Champions League.
The other attractions
Group A front-runners Uzbekistan entertain second-placed Iran hoping to strengthen their lead with a third straight win. Carlos Queiroz’s Iran boast a mental edge, however, with four wins and a draw from their six previous encounters. But the two sides’ record in World Cup qualifying remains even, having traded a 1-0 away victory on the road to Brazil 2014. Adding to the intrigue is the expectations placed on a pair of super-subs, with both Alexander Geynrikh and Reza Ghoochannejhad ready to come off the bench and add spark for their respective teams.
Also in Group A, both China PR and Syria are aiming to secure their first three points of the stage, in what is their maiden qualifying encounter against each other. Level with a point apiece, both teams know that they can re-ignite hopes with three points. Despite missing first-choice goalkeeper Zeng Cheng who is nursing an injury, China coach Gao Hongbo has a strong squad at his disposal with Netherlands-based teenager Zhang Yuning expecting to spearhead the attack after impressing in the goalless draw against Iran. Under Ayman Hakeem, the visitors are expected to showcase their trademark resilience which saw them draw against Korea Republic.
Player to watch
If his eye-catching club form is anything to go by, then Son Heung-min looks set to fire for Korea Republic against Qatar. The Tottenham Hotspur attacker recently completed a brace as his side won 2-1 at Middlesbrough before netting the only goal against hosts CSKA Moscow in the UEFA Champions League. Having scored the match-winning goal against Qatar in a qualifier for Brazil 2014, the 24-year-old is hopeful of emulating the feat against the same rivals this time around.
Do you know?
Jorge Fossati has recently been given back the Qatari reins on the back of significant experience in Asia. The former Uruguay coach had a short spell in charge of the Qatar eight years ago before taking Qatari giants Al Sadd to the 2011 AFC Champions League title with a victory against Jeonbuk Motors in the final.