Asia's third qualifying round for the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™ picks up pace as the competition passes halfway on Thursday. Matchday 6 sees the continent's 12 leading nations do battle in return matches, with favourites confident of building on their previous victories and strugglers seeking revenge.
Notably, both Iran and Saudi Arabia aim to strengthen the grip on their respective groups with away wins in Qatar and Thailand. Japan, meanwhile, travel to United Arab Emirates keen on avenging their first-leg loss at home against the same opponents. Elsewhere, China PR and Thailand are still seeking first-up wins with their hopes hanging by a thread. Join FIFA.com as we preview the crunch ties across Asia in detail.
United Arab Emirates-Japan, Hazza Bin Zayed Stadium, Al Ain
Japan and joint leaders Saudi Arabia can maintain their place at the top of Group B with away wins. Trailing the Japanese by a point, though, hosts UAE are all too aware that they will leapfrog the opponents to move into the top two with a victory. Vahid Halilhodzic's star-studded side boasts the pedigree and experience which has seen them qualify for the past five World Cups. However, it is Mahdi Ali's home side that enters the fray with the mental edge, having prevailed in the pair’s most recent two meetings. A penalty shoot-out victory in the 2015 AFC Asian Cup, and a famous 2-1 win at Saitama in the opener, saw UAE become one of the few Asian teams to inflict two consecutive defeats on Japan over recent years.
With a score to settle, the visitors arrived in Al Ain five days in advance for their preparation. Halilhodzic has a full-strength squad at his disposal, which features as many as 14 of their European-based stars. UAE, however, have concerns with superstar striker Ahmed Khalil - who scored both goals against Japan in Saitama - in serious doubt nursing an injury. Even if he is unfit to play, UAE can rely on creative outlet Omar Abdulrahman to unpick Japan’s well-organised defence.
The other attractions
Also in Group B, Australia travel to Tehran to re-unite with Iraq, who take the Iranian capital's Pas Stadium as their home venue for this re-encounter. Sitting in third trailing Japan and Saudi Arabia by a point, Ange Postecoglou's visitors are keen to return to the section’s summit with a third win. With just three points from five outings, though, the Iraqis know they have no option but to win if they are to keep their hopes alive. This is the two sides' eighth World Cup qualifying meeting and the Socceroos boast a dominant head-to-head record with five wins and a draw. Australia will look to in-form striker Tomi Juric, who scored once and set-up another in their 2-0 home victory. Iraq, for their part, will look to prolific striker Mohannad Abdul-Raheem, who already has five goals to his name.
There is a top v bottom clash in this section, with struggling Thailand welcome front-runners Saudi Arabia. Despite losing the first leg 1-0, Kiatisuk Senamuang's hosts will be optimistic of a better showing in the second half of the competition, following their successful defense of the regional AFF Suzuki Cup in December. In addition, the War Elephants clinched their first point by bravely forcing continental champions Australia to a 2-2 draw in their last outing. With little but pride to play for, the Thais won't give up without a fight.
Group A leaders Iran travel to Doha to face Qatar in the two sides' tenth World Cup qualifying meeting. Despite losing 1-0 to Iraq in a pre-match friendly, Carlos Queiroz' visitors have high hopes of cementing their place at the summit with three points. Indeed, Team Melli boast an overwhelming record against the Qataris with five wins and a draw from the past nine qualifying clashes, including triumphing 2-0 at home in the first leg in this campaign. Sitting second-from-bottom with four points, Jorge Fossati's side know that they must win in order to revive their fortunes.
If their clubs' recent performances are anything to go by, it seems that Group A bottom side China look set to upstage nemesis Korea Republic on home soil. Indeed, all three Chinese Super League representatives have remained undefeated against their K League rivals in the ongoing AFC Champions League, results from which Marcello Lippi's hosts can take heart against the Taeguk Warriors. However, Uli Stielike's visitors are historically one of the most formidable opponents for China, having claimed 22 wins from 35 meetings in all competitions. Trailing Iran by a point, the South Koreans will hope to win and that other results go their way as they aim to move to top. With just two points, the Chinese are aware that they are left with no options but to win if they are to salvage a lifeline.
Elsewhere, Syria entertain Uzbekistan in Malaysia, in another match both sides will have earmarked as a must-win. Despite playing their home fixture in neutral venues for political reasons, it seems that the West Asians have turned the south-east Asian country into a strong home base, drawing against continental heavyweights Korea Republic and Iran in Malaysia to keep their hopes alive. The resilient Syrians are likely to stick to their ultra-defensive game-plan, which has seen them concede just two goals so far. However, the Uzbeks have plenty of options upfront and they will look to veteran striker Alexander Geynrikh who scored the only goal in the pair’s previous meeting.
Player to watch
Young Sardar Azmoun may be Iran's top-scorer in this qualifying campaign with eight goals. However, the experience of Reza Ghoochannejhad can't be understated considering his major contribution in firing Team Melli to Brazil 2014. Despite starting on the bench, the 29-year-old forward showed a glimpse of his genius by coming on and breaking the deadlock against Qatar with an injury-time strike, which set them on the road to a 2-0 win. After returning to Dutch club Heerenveen last June, he has showed improved form, scoring over a dozen goals. He became the first Iranian to score a hat-trick in a top-flight European league when he completed a treble in a 4–3 loss against PSV Eindhoven in January.
Do you know?
Server Djeparov is Uzbekistan's most-capped international of all time with 121 caps. Having featured prominently in their past three World Cup campaigns, the 34-year-old midfielder aims to book their first-ever qualification in potentially his last qualifying campaign.
What they said
"After our defeat against UAE in the opener, we have fought back and got where we are by winning tough matches. The re-meeting with UAE will be vital for us. It largely depends on the result of this match whether we will get closer to our qualifying goal," Japan forward Shinji Okazaki.
Matchday 6 fixtures
China PR-Korea Republic
United Arab Emirates-Japan