The third round of the AFC qualifying competition for the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™ has reached the halfway stage, and all the indications are that the battle for the qualification places in Groups A and B is heading for a thrilling denouement. Iran currently lead the way in Group A, while Saudi Arabia, who are hoping to return to the world finals after a long absence, are on top in Group B.

Korea Republic, Japan and Australia, who all represented Asia at Brazil 2014, have enjoyed fluctuating fortunes over the first five matchdays, while United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Uzbekistan have staked compelling claims for a place in Russia. All the teams are still in with a chance of making it to the World Cup, though the hopes of China PR and Thailand are hanging by a thread.

Little to choose between Iran, Korea Republic and Uzbekistan
Iran have been out front in Group A since defeating Qatar in their opening match. The only unbeaten side in the Asian qualifiers, Team Melli’s record reads as played five, won three, drawn two and no goals conceded, statistics that seem to back up the wisdom of Portuguese coach Carlos Queiroz’s results-first approach.

In fact, the Iranians have been so well drilled that they have also gone unbeaten throughout 2016 as a whole, a record of which their coach is rightly proud. “My team is getting better every year,” said Quieroz. “When I took on the Iran job, only one of our players was playing in Europe. Now there are 11. We have to keep on working if we are to achieve the impossible [qualifying for two World Cups in a row].”

For their part, Korea Republic have picked up wins against China PR, Qatar and Uzbekistan and a draw with Syria, with their only defeat coming against Iran. After making a rocky start against China PR and Syria, with performances in those games putting their German coach Uli Stielike under much scrutiny, the South Koreans were back to something like their best against the Uzbeks, who are their closest rivals in the battle for second place. Since kicking off the qualifiers with two wins, Uzbekistan struggled to maintain their momentum in their next three outings.

Despite the many challenges Syrian football has faced in the last few years, the national team has surprised everyone by occupying fourth place in Group A, with their one win so far coming against China PR. Discussing his side’s efforts to date, their coach Ayman Hakeem told FIFA.com: “The determination and confidence we’ve acquired with these players have taken us this far, in spite of the extremely difficult situation the country finds itself in.”

Bottom two Qatar and China PR have both changed coaches since the third round got underway. Uruguayan Jorge Fossati replaced compatriot Daniel Carreno in the Qatari hot seat, while Marcello Lippi, a former World Cup winner with Italy, was given the job of turning China’s flagging campaign around. Following their goalless home draw with Qatar on Matchday 5, however, the Chinese have much to do to secure a place at the world finals for a second time.  

East and west do battle
Impressive throughout the second round, Saudi Arabia have picked up where they left off and lie top of Group B on goal difference with three wins, a draw and a solitary defeat, which came against Japan on Matchday 5. As that win showed, Samurai Blue have roused themselves after an opening-day defeat to UAE and now lie second, a single goal behind the Saudis, courtesy of wins over Thailand, Iraq and the Saudis and a draw with Australia.

That famous victory over Vahid Halilhodzic’s side in Japan gave the UAE the best possible start, and though defeats have since followed against Australia and Saudi Arabia, wins over Thailand and Iraq have kept them in the hunt on nine points, level with Australia.

While the top four contest the qualification places, Iraq and Thailand find themselves well off the pace at the bottom of the section. The Lions of Mesopotamia have just one victory to their name, a 4-0 defeat of Thailand, who have collected a single point in their five matches.

Decisive dates to come
The first three matchdays of 2017, which will take place between March and June, will be crucial, with the teams at the top of both sections looking to consolidate their positions before sealing their places at Russia 2018 in the final qualifying games in August and September.

Four teams will qualify directly for the world finals, two from each group, with the two third-placed teams facing off in a two-legged play-off in October 2017. The winners of that tie will then go forward to an intercontinental play-off with the fourth-placed team in the CONCACAF Zone in November.

There is much to watch out for in Asia in 2017, when the continent could well be sending five teams to the World Cup for the very first time.