More than a year after the race to the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™ got underway in the Asian zone, with over 160 games having already been played across the first two stages, the draw for the third round of qualifying took place on 12 April 2016 in Kuala Lumpur. This ended an anxious wait for the 12 teams still in the running, who now know the identity of the opponents against whom they will vie for one of the four automatic tickets to the finals that are up for grabs.
Fate has thrown up a host of exciting-looking match-ups. On the one hand, Asian champions Australia have been pitted against Japan, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Iraq and Thailand in Group B. Meanwhile, fellow top seeds Iran – who boast experience of four previous World Cup campaigns – have been paired with Korea Republic, Uzbekistan, China PR, Qatar and Syria.
The draw was conducted by AFC General Secretary Dato Windsor John. Numerous personalities were in attendance, headed by the coaches of the teams that will contest the third round.
"The two groups are balanced," Carlos Queiroz, Iran's coach said. "Our group is similar to the group that we had in the same round of the last qualifiers. It’s clear that there are two favourites in our group while there are two or three in the group who will try to take their chances.”
"There are some tough teams in the group but we are optimistic," said Jose Daniel Carreno, whose Qatar side will face Queiroz's side in Group A. "Iran are one of the top teams in Asia and the match against them will be tough but we will work more in order to challenge them."
The latest FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking was used to split the 12-country field into six pots. These were then drawn into two groups of six teams, who will do battle for direct qualification to Russia 2018 between 1 September 2016 and 5 September 2017.
Both group winners and runners-up will go straight through to the 2018 World Cup. Meanwhile, the two teams that finish third will meet in a two-legged showdown on 5 and 10 October 2017. Whoever triumphs in this double-header will look to secure their spot at the finals in an intercontinental play-off – also to be played over two legs – against the fourth-placed country from CONCACAF qualifying.
The full AFC qualifying third round draw is as follows:
Group A: Iran, Korea Republic, Uzbekistan, China PR, Qatar and Syria
Group B: Australia, Japan, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Iraq and Thailand
Matchday 1: 1 September 2016
Matchday 2: 6 September 2016
Matchday 3: 6 October 2016
Matchday 4: 11 October 2016
Matchday 5: 15 November 2016
Matchday 6: 23 March 2017
Matchday 7: 28 March 2017
Matchday 8: 13 June 2017*
Matchday 9: 31 August 2017
Matchday 10: 5 September 2017
*Australia will play their Matchday 8 game on 8 June 2017 because of their involvement in the 2017 FIFA Confederations Cup.