Top-of-the-table clashes take centre stage as the Asian qualifiers for the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™ reach their halfway mark on Thursday. All four of the continent’s Brazil 2014 representatives are involved, with Australia, Korea Republic and Iran squaring up against their closest group rivals, while Japan face leaders Syria in a match they can ill afford to lose.
The same can be said of China PR and United Arab Emirates, both of whom are hoping to bounce back to topple current front-runners Qatar and Saudi Arabia respectively. Elsewhere, Korea DPR entertain Philippines seeking to maintain their unblemished record, while Uzbekistan travel to Bahrain eyeing a third consecutive victory. Join FIFA.com as we preview these showdowns across Asia.
Reigning Asian champions Australia travel to Jordan in* Group B* well aware that underestimating their hosts is not an option. The Socceroos suffered a 2-1 defeat in the Hashemite Kingdom on the road to Brazil 2014, which nearly put their campaign into jeopardy. Ange Postecoglou's visitors will nonetheless arrive buoyed by a perfect record in this campaign with three wins out of three, while Paul Put's home side trail by two points after being held to a goalless draw by Kyrgyzstan in their last home outing.
The Jordanians do, though, enter the rematch in fine form after beating Iraq 3-0 in a recent friendly. Their hopes are also boosted by goalkeeper Amer Shafi's recovery from a recent injury, while midfielder Hassan Abdulfattah is back to reinforce the team having missed the previous match against Bangladesh. However, they must make do without defender Anas Bani Yaseen through suspension. Australia, meanwhile, can call upon a star-studded squad including no fewer that 17 overseas-based players. Notably, Trent Sainsbury, James Troisi and Tomi Juric return from injuries, while in-form Tim Cahill continues his role as captain.
The other attractions
Familiar rivals meet again in* Group A *as Saudi Arabia welcome United Arab Emirates in the sides’ sixth World Cup qualifying fixture. The Saudis have a slight mental edge with two wins and as many draws from the past five preliminary meetings. Furthermore, the hosts can take heart from their overall record in this fixture, with 31 encounters in all competitions having yielded 19 wins.
Group C hopefuls China arrive in Qatar with a clear score to settle, having suffered damaging losses to the same opponents in qualifying for Italy 1990, France 1998 and South Africa 2010. Having being held to a goalless draw at home by Hong Kong, China’s coach Alain Perrin is clear that they can't afford any slip-ups against the Qatari section leaders. The visitors will look to experienced captain Zheng Zhi, while the home side are boosted by the return of veteran striker Sebastian Soria, who scored the winner in China during qualifying for South Africa 2010.
Iran travel to Oman seeking to establish a clear lead in Group D with a third victory. The two teams are level on seven points each, with Carlos Queiroz's visitors leading on goal difference. Team Melli will look to 20-year-old striker Sardar Azmoun, who leads the team's goalscoring chart with four goals this campaign. The Omanis can, for their part, count on dependable goalkeeper Ali Al-Habsi as they attempt to keep the Iranians at bay.
Japan face section leaders Syria knowing that only a victory will be enough to take them top of Group E. Having been stunned by Singapore at home, drawing 0-0 in their opener, Japan’s coach Vahid Halilhodzic has made it clear that losing to the Syrians is not an option. The 20-year-old Salzburg forward Takumi Minamino was the surprise call-up as the Samurai Blue aim to enhance their potency up front. They will also be buoyed by an an undefeated record against Syria, with seven wins and a draw from the sides’ previous meetings.
Group F's Iraq, meanwhile, face a must-win trip to Vietnam, having been held to a 2-2 draw by Thailand previously. The visitors' concerns are not helped by the absence of striking duo Marwan Hussein and Aaymen Hussein, both of whom are missing due to injuries. In Group G, Germany-based midfielder Hilal El Helwe is expected to make his international debut for Lebanon as they chase an away win against Myanmar. Elsewhere in the same section, joint-leaders Kuwait entertain Korea Republic, with both sides hoping to maintain their perfect run thus far.
Finally, *Group H *front-runners Korea DPR have fixed their sights on a fourth straight win when they meet Philippines at home. Uzbekistan, meanwhile, know they must secure all three points against hosts Bahrain if they are to put pressure on the Chollima.
Player to watch
Igor Sergeev, 22, has established a reputation as one of Asia’s most promising stars by scoring regularly for both club and country. The young forward has racked up 17 goals to keep Pakhtakor on course to win their 11th title in the domestic league. He has shown similarly impressive form in the qualifying campaign too, with three goals so far, including a brace in the 5-1 win over the Philippines.
Do you know?
Qatar have emerged as the tournament's leading goalscorers thus far, having netted 19 times – an average of 6.3 goals per game.
What they said
"The match against Syria is going to be the hardest and most important of our fixtures this year. They have a couple of good players and don't need many goalscoring opportunities. But we've got excellent quality and experience ourselves," Japan coach Vahid Halilhodzic.
Matchday 5 fixtures
Group A: Timor-Leste-Palestine, Saudi Arabia-United Arab Emirates
Group B: Kyrgyzstan-Tajikistan, Jordan-Australia
Group C: Bhutan-Maldives, Qatar-China
Group D: Turkmenistan-India, Oman-Iran
Group E: Singapore-Afghanistan, Syria-Japan
Group F: Vietnam-Iraq
Group G: Myanmar-Lebanon, Kuwait-Korea Republic
Group H: Korea DPR-Philippines, Bahrain-Uzbekistan