Tension is mounting as Asia's ongoing second qualifying round for the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™ is nearing its end. With just two matchdays left, Korea Republic are on the verge of joining the already-qualified Qatar in the next phase of twelve, with a point against either Lebanon or Kuwait enough to seal their progression. The other favourites, meanwhile, face stiff tests if they are to live up to the expectations.
With the Asian campaign also serving as the qualifier for the next AFC Asian Cup in 2019, the participants entered the fray with added motivation and vigour. More surprises were produced as a series of underdogs impressed with history-making results. To name a few, debutants Bhutan came from nowhere to progress after edging Sri Lanka over two legs and Singapore clinched their first qualifying point against Japan by holding the four-time Asian champions to a goalless draw away. Elsewhere, Jordan edged past Australia, while Turkmenistan first drew with Iran and then defeated Oman – results which kept the respective groups still wide open.
Qatar 1-0 China PR, Doha, 8 October 2015
This match may not be the most entertaining, with the two sides separated by a solo first-half header by Karim Boudiaf. However, it proved decisive in the favour of the Qataris as the result, coupled with China's second draw against Hong Kong, sealed the progression of the 2022 FIFA World Cup hosts. Both teams entered the game with scores to settle. China came out on top at home when the pair met on the road to Korea/Japan 2002, booking qualification to their maiden FIFA World Cup. Qatar, for their part, avenged that with an away win in South Africa 2010 qualifying as they progressed into the final round at China's expense. In a keenly contested reacquaintance in Doha, it was again the West Asians who came on top, pressing hard throughout as they clinched a deserved win. All the more impressive was the fact that Qatar are one of the only two sides, alongside Korea Republic, to have maintained an unblemished record this term. China were, meanwhile, left bemoaning their lack of luck after hitting the woodwork eight times over two encounters with Hong Kong, drawing twice.
A series of underdogs stole the show as they opened the second round campaign with surprising results. Tiny Guam sent shockwaves around the region with opening defeats over Turkmenistan and India while Philippines surprised even their own supporters by beating Bahrain and Yemen. Boosted by their opening win over Cambodia, Singapore went on to earn a point in Japan before edging Afghanistan but with the campaign reaching the latter stages, the south-east Asian trio failed to live up to their early promise as hopes began to diminish.
Korea DPR, meanwhile, proved the true surprise packages as they remain Group H leaders. The *Chollima *got off to a 3-0 away win against Yemen before pulling off a dramatic 4-2 victory against Uzbekistan at home. Despite being held to a goalless draw by Philippines they bounced back to clinch a second victory against Yemen and, despite losing to the Uzbeks 3-1 away, they maintained their place as front-runners – although they sit a just a point clear of the Uzbeks who have a game in hand. Also impressing are Thailand, who came from two goals down at home to draw 2-2 with Iraq as they maintained their undefeated record and lead Group F.
Players to watch
Like in the past, Asian qualifying continued to provide the setting for promising stars to emerge and shine. Having exploded on to the continental scene in January's AFC Asian Cup, Iran's striking prodigy Sardar Azmoun continued his emergence with four goals. Uzbekistan's Sardor Rashidov and Igor Sergeev became the team's joint top-scorers with four goals apiece while Korea Republic's on-song striker Son Heungmin scored six times.
A host of seasoned campaigners proved key as they provided their respective sides with experience and some crucial goals. Despite being 36 years old, Tim Cahill remains Australia's dependable goal-machine with six already to his name. Keisuke Honda meanwhile was instrumental as Japan overcame their slow start to crush Syria and Singapore. Topping all these, this competition saw Ahmed Khalil join the aforementioned duo as Asia's established stars. The United Arab Emirates captain netted ten times as his side maintain their place in Group A's top two, performances which helped him earn this year's AFC Player of the Year award.
The number 11 - The number of qualifying places which are still up for grabs, with Qatar the only side to have sealed progression into the net stage.
What they said
"I think as a nation now we've qualified for the last three, that's not enough for us anymore. We've got to go to a World Cup and really make an impact. I'm on record as saying at some point the European and South American dominance of the World Cup needs to be broken and I think Asia's a continent that's capable of doing that," *Australia coach Ange Postecoglou *
Crunch ties and deciders are looming large as the Asian hopefuls have fixed sights on progression. Not surprisingly, there are enticing match-ups where the qualifying spots are to be decided.
The concluding matchday in March pits reigning Asian champions Australia against Jordan, a team who won the first meeting 2-0. Despite their favourites tag, Japan can't afford any slips-up against Syria at home, while the same can be said of Iraq, who must win both remaining games – including against leading Thailand – if they are to progress. Elsewhere, Iran must tackle an Oman side ready to pounce on any slip-up, and Korea DPR must hope that they defeat Philippines and that other results also go their way if they are to guarantee their spot.