It has taken nine months, and some 150 matches featuring 39 nations, but 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™ qualifying in Asia is finally on the cusp of concluding its second stage. The globe’s largest continent will see its Russia 2018 campaign whittled down to 12 teams on Tuesday. From there, four sides will book progression to Russia, while a fifth will enter into an intercontinental play-off against a CONCACAF opponent.

For now, though, all the focus is on Tuesday. Five teams are already through to September’s third stage – Qatar, Korea Republic, Japan, Saudi Arabia and Thailand – leaving seven spots to be filled on what promises to be a compelling denouement to stage two. The top teams in each of the eight groups will progress, alongside the four best second-placed teams. There are also tickets to AFC Asian Cup qualifying up for grabs. previews all the action.

The match
It is winner-takes-all in Sydney in a near-repeat of a scenario from four years ago. On that occasion Australia overpowered Jordan with a crucial 4-0 win to end the latter’s Brazil 2014 hopes. As was the case during that campaign, Jordan notched a win over the Socceroos in Amman. Now Jordan head Down Under needing to reprise last October’s 2-0 victory if they are to leapfrog their rivals into top spot in Group B and guarantee progress. Former English Premier League manager Harry Redknapp will be making his second appearance in the Jordanian dugout, though his task is a challenging one with the Socceroos protecting a strong home record, and needing just a point. Both Australia and Jordan enter the match in goalscoring form have netted seven and eight goals respectively on Thursday. Fourth-placed Tajikistan will host third-placed Kyrgyzstan with only pride on the line.

The other attractions
A fascinating contest is in prospect in Abu Dhabi where United Arab Emirates need to beat a rejuvenated Saudi Arabia by two goals to finish top of Group A. UAE’s much vaunted attack was relatively quiet in a 2-0 win over Palestine on Thursday, and a failure to fire here may leave the Asian Cup bronze medal winners facing a contest to be one of the best runner-ups. The other match sees Palestine host Timor-Leste as two teams from opposite corners of the sprawling continent do battle.

Much focus will be on Group C where China PR need a win at home against the already-qualified Qatar, or face the very real prospect of yet another early elimination from World Cup qualifying. It promises to be a nervous night for the Chinese against a side with momentum and form on their side. While the world’s most populous nation have stumbled through qualifying, leaders Qatar have remained perfect. Elsewhere, Ricki Herbert’s Maldives, who will be without the services of goalscoring ace Ali Ashfaq, will seek to end their campaign on a high in Male against modest Bhutan.

Three points clear and with a 15-goal advantage, Group D leaders Iran welcome second-placed Oman with what is effectively an unassailable advantage. Oman have second sewn up, but like many other second-placed teams, they are in a desperate scramble to accrue as many points as possible. The other group match will see India complete a disappointing campaign by welcoming Turkmenistan.

Meanwhile over in Group E, Syria are in a very similar position to Oman. They visit continental big guns Japan with second assured, but needing points to ensure they become one of the elite quartet to advance. Regardless of the outcome in Saitama, it has been a remarkable campaign for Syria given the troubles in their homeland. Singapore, who are assured of third, will bid farewell to coach Bernd Stange when they meet home side Afghanistan, in a match being hosted in Tehran.

A third match being played in Tehran is perhaps the most crucial of all with second in Group F on the line as Iraq host Vietnam. Runaway leaders Thailand dominated the group, but neighbours Vietnam can unexpectedly join them if they somehow conjure a win over the 2007 Asian champions.

Group G sees Lebanon seeking a big win over the ever-improving Myanmar as they scramble for a possible best runners-up ticket. The Cedars will need to recover their zest after conceding an injury-time defeat against Korea Republic on Thursday, in a result which may ultimately prove costly.

Finally to Group H where Uzbekistan and Korea DPR chase automatic progression. The Uzbeks, boasting strong home form, can retain first with a win over the visiting Bahrain. Korea DPR, who sit two points adrift, face a challenging trip to meet Philippines having dropped two points against the Azkals earlier in the campaign.

The player
United Arab Emirates’ powerfully-built attacker Ahmad Khalil has continued his rare form of 2015 into the current year. The 2015 AFC Player of the Year netted in Thursday’s 2-0 win over Palestine for his 11th goal during Russia 2018 qualifying.

Did you know?
Australia have lost just one World Cup qualifier at home since 1981. Their only defeat came during the past 35 years came against China PR in 2008 as coach Pim Verbeek fielded an experimental side ahead of the Beijing Olympics.

The quote
“Iran is still at top of the group and we want to advance to the next stage as the first team,” Iran coach Carlos Queiroz remains focussed as his side prepare to host Oman.

Matchday fixtures
29 March
Group A: United Arab Emirates-Saudi Arabia, Palestine-Timor Leste 
Group B: Australia-Jordan, Tajikistan-Kyrgyzstan
Group C: China PR-Qatar, Maldives-Bhutan
Group D: Iran-Oman, India-Turkmenistan
Group E: Japan-Syria, Afghanistan-Singapore
Group F: Iraq-Vietnam
Group G: Lebanon-Myanmar
Group H: Philippines-Korea DPR, Uzbekistan-Bahrain

Regulations: The second-placed teams in the five-team groups will have their results against the group's bottom side discounted to create an equal standing compared to Group F, which only has four teams. See regulations at the attached link.