- Two more Asian nations will win qualification to Russia on Tuesday
- Korea Republic and Uzbekistan meet in a potential winner-takes-all contest
- Australia and Saudi Arabia tightly matched in the hunt for the other ticket
Three-cornered contests loom large as Asia's third qualifying round for the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™ reaches its conclusion on Tuesday. Korea Republic lead the way in Group A with victory enough to see them clinch the second qualifying spot behind the already-qualified Iran. Syria and Uzbekistan, meanwhile, must win and hope that other results go their way if they are to clinch maiden World Cup qualification.
The same can be said of Group B where both Australia and Saudi Arabia enter the matchday seeking to claim the remaining berth. Even United Arab Emirates harbour the slimmest mathematical hope of an automatic spot to Russia 2018.
In addition to the two automatic slots, two play-off places are also up for grabs. Even Marcello Lippi's China PR's are not ruled out, with the world's most populous country in with an outside chance of securing a play-off position should they finish third.
The match*Uzbekistan-Korea Republic Bunyodkor Stadium, Tashkent, 20:00 local time
*Leading by two points, Shin Taeyong's visitors know that their fate is firmly in their own hands, with victory in Tashkent enough to book a tenth World Cup appearance regardless of other results. If Korea Republic's proud head-to-head record is anything to go by, the Taeguk Warriors will get the job done. Indeed, the east Asians have remained undefeated in all past seven qualifying meetings against the former Soviet republic drawing two and winning five, including coming from behind to triumph 2-1 in the first leg of this campaign.
Narrowly trailing Syria on goal difference, Uzbekistan need to win and possibly by a couple of goals. To achieve that, coach Samvel Babayan is all too aware that his side must improve their potency upfront, having suffered two losses on a trot. They will look to the goal-scoring ability of Marat Bikmaev, who opened the scoring in the two sides' first-leg encounter, while young Rostov striker Eldor Shomurodov is capable of causing headaches. New captain Kim Younggwon remains the key man at the back for Korea Republic, while both Koo Jacheol and Son Heungmin will seek to rediscover their goalscoring form.
The other attractions Never before have Syria come so close to World Cup qualification, with a victory at Tehran potentially enough to send them to Russia 2018. They not only need to win against Iran, but hope that Korea Republic lose by a slight margin in order to maintain their narrow goal-difference lead over Uzbekistan. With maiden qualification in sight, though, the Syrians are facing what is arguably the toughest task of this campaign with Iran yet to concede a single goal in the group. In a sense, it is likely to be a clash of two emerging stars, with in-form Omar Khribin shouldering goalscoring hope for Syria and Mehdi Taremi spearheading the attacking line for Iran.
Sitting second from bottom in Group A, China's hopes are slim, a fact acknowledged by Lippi. They must win against the already-eliminated Qatar by a big margin and hope that both Syria and Uzbekistan lose if they are to seal an unlikely play-off place. Gao Lin, who scored the match-winner against Uzbekistan last week, remains the key man upfront. However, 2022 World Cup hosts Qatar won't give up without a fight and captained by Hassan Al Haidos, they will be motivated to wrap up the campaign with a triumph at home.
Trailing Saudi Arabia in Group B on goal difference, Australia know that they have no option but to win big at home against Thailand if they are to clinch second place behind Japan. Having lost to Japan last week, Ange Postecoglou's side are under pressure to put on an improved showing. With five wins and a draw in the past six meetings against Thailand, a comfortable home win looks within the Socceroos' grasp. However, they will be wary of the visitor's captain Teerasil Dangda who netted a brace in last November’s 2-2 draw.
Saudi Arabia entertain group winners Japan in what is a must-win encounter. In a sense, the Green Falcons have a tougher task than Australia, considering that they have never won against the Samurai Blue in World Cup qualifying, including losing 2-1 in the first leg of this campaign. Elsewhere, United Arab Emirates would need a miracle to realise their flickering hopes. They must defeat Iraq by a huge margin and hope that both Australia and Saudi Arabia suffer defeat.
Veteran captain Firas Al Khatib's experience will be key if Syria are to breach Iran's rock-solid rearguard. With 27 international goals from 56 matches, the 34-year-old is the team's top goalscorer and most-capped player. He returned to the national side last week after a long hiatus and made an immediate impact by setting up Khribin for the opener.
Do you know?
Both Uzbekistan and Syria enter the final matchday within touching distance of maiden World Cup qualification.
What they said"When I took over the team, we had just a point (from five matches). But I have always asked my players to give their all even if our chances are slim. It was amazing for us to reach this stage (of qualifying) so there are no excuses to give up." China coach Marcello Lippi
Matchday 10 fixtures
Iraq-United Arab Emirates