Six mouth-watering showdowns loom large in Asia as the continent’s third qualifying round for 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™ commences on Thursday. Familiar foes meet again as Brazil 2014 quartet Korea Republic, Japan, Australia and Iran lock horns against China PR, United Arab Emirates, Iraq and Qatar respectively. Debutants for this stage Syria travel to Uzbekistan seeking to continue their fairytale run while Thailand aim to upstage hosts Saudi Arabia upon their return to the last twelve. Join FIFA.com as we preview these crunch ties across Asia.
Seoul World Cup Stadium, Seoul, 1 September, 20:00 local time
This match looks set to capture the imagination of fans from both countries and beyond, considering the long-standing rivalry that has developed between them. A total of 34 matches have been played out across a period of 67 years, with the Koreans the dominant side having boasted nineteen wins and lost just two. Needless to say, Uli Stielike's hosts enter the rematch with a clear mental edge. However, Gao Hongbo's visitors can also take heart from a spirited 3-0 friendly victory in 2010.
The Taeguk Warriors are arguably Asia's most successful side in World Cup qualifying, having made it to the global extravaganza a record nine times. They finished the runners-up in last year's AFC Asian Cup before rampaging through the previous qualifying round-they won all eight matches without conceding a goal en route to the last twelve. Pulling the strings is Swansea City midfielder Ki Sungyueng while Tottenham Hotspur's Son Heungmin is the man spearheading their attack. Despite their tag of perennial under-achievers, the Team Dragon have, for their part, shown positive signs by reaching the quarter-finals in the aforementioned Asian Cup before sealing the return to the final qualifying round. Former AFC Player of the Year Zheng Zhi is back to boss the midfield while centre-forward Gao Lin is expected to relive the form which saw him on target in the last victory against the Koreans.
The other attractions
There will also be a high level of international intrigue when Iran and Qatar face off in what is their twenty-first meeting in all competitions. Carlos Queiroz's hosts are, of course, the favourites having won twelve and lost just three in their previous meetings. However, the visitors have proved more than capable of springing a surprise. Under Jose Daniel Carreno, the 2022 World Cup hosts became the first team to qualify from the previous stage. Qatar beat Thailand 3-0 in a pre-match warm-up although they have made do without injured defender Ibrahim Majid and forward Mohammed Muntari.
Syria head to Tashkent aiming to continue their resilient style of play. With the absence of European-based forward Sanharib Malki, the visitors' goal-scoring responsibility falls on the young shoulder of Omar Khribin, who finished the team's top-scorer with seven goals in the previous round. The hosts can count on their rich experiences. Providing leadership for the Uzbeks is hugely-experienced midfielder Server Djeparov, while veteran striker Alexander Geynrikh is expected to continue his super-sub role. Leading the attack will be 23-year-old Beijing Guoan forward Igor Sergeev who has scored regularly for both club and country.
In Group B, Japan enter the home game against United Arab Emirates with a score to settle, having lost to the same opponents on penalties in the 2015 Asian Cup quarter-final. Of course, Vahid Halilhodzic's star-studded side needs no introduction but the Samurai Blue can misfire when playing under pressure at home, a point borne out when they were held to a goalless draw by Singapore. The visitors will look to the pace of Ali Mabkhout to breach the Japanese rearguard while Mohamed Abdulrahman’s creative form will be the key if they are to pull off another shock.
Iraq are likely to feature a young line-up with several players participating in the recent Olympic Men's Football Tournament during which they came up with three draws, which included holding hosts and gold medal winners Brazil to a goalless draw. Joined by England-based Yaser Kasim and Udinese star Ali Adnan, the visitors will be aiming for a surprise. The Socceroos coach Ange Postecoglou has twenty-one overseas-based stars at his disposal while the evergreen Tim Cahill, who joined Melbourne City recently, remains a lethal weapon up front. Boasting four wins from their six past qualifying meetings, the hosts are confident of building on their proud record.
Mohammad Al Sahlawi finished the previous round's top-scorer with 14 goals as Saudi Arabia impressed by winning a group which also featured UAE and Palestine. However, both the striker and the side will come under the scrutiny of a much-improved Thailand, who produced one of the biggest surprises by finishing ahead of Iraq to seal their progression to the final round. The Saudis put four unanswered goals past Laos in a recent friendly while the Thais enter the game on the back of a 3-0 loss to Qatar.
Player to watch
Fifteen goals from just 18 international appearances is the impressive record which means Sardar Azmoun has truly established his place as Iran's hottest prospect. The 21-year-old emerged Team Melli's top-scorer seven goals as his side eased through to the last twelve. His aerial ability and powerful forward forays will provide coach Carlos Queiroz with more options as he aims to unlock the solid defence of Qatar in the opener.
Do you know?
Syria are the only side making their first appearance in the third stage, while both China and Thailand have sealed their return to the decisive qualifying round for the first time since their last appearance at this stage on the road to Korea/Japan 2002.
What they said
"The target we have for our match against Saudi Arabia is to claim a point or even spring a surprise and return to Thailand with three points to our credit. These are the best 23 players we have in the country. We must unite like we did three years ago to win the SEA [Southeast Asian] Games title," Thailand coach Kiatiusk Senamuang
Matchday 1 fixtures
Japan-United Arab Emirates