Tuesday's Asian second round draw of qualifying for the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™ sparked a diverse range of reactions from the 40 contenders. While those involved may differ in their ambitions for this campaign, they each harbour ambitions of achieving their own degree of success.
Confidence among big-four
Catching the majority of global attention are the big-four - Australia, Japan, Korea Republic and Iran - all of whom represented the world's most populous continent at Brazil 2014. With memories of their title-winning campaign in January's AFC Asian Cup still fresh, Australia coach Ange Postecoglou is understandably optimistic about sealing a place in the final qualifying round, as well as the 2019 AFC Asian Cup, by winning a group which also features Jordan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Bangladesh.
"Over the past 18 months we have taken great pride in being the best we can be on and off the field," the Socceroos boss said. “We will face some logistical and footballing challenges [in this group] but we'll continue to work hard to make sure we are ready for whatever challenges we face."
While a place in the next round should be within their grasp, Postecoglou sees the forthcoming stage as an opportunity to take stock of his transitional side. "We have now another eight international matches to continue to give the core of the squad more experience," he remarked about a campaign which runs for nine months from June until March 2016. "It will offer some opportunities to younger players to ensure we build depth."
Echoing a similarly positive outlook is Korea Republic coach Uli Stielike, whose side are pitted against Kuwait, Lebanon, Myanmar and Laos. "It is a relatively kind draw for us," he said. "But we will have to respect our opponents and take them seriously because there is no easy teams in the qualifiers."
Both Kuwait and Lebanon are no strangers for Korea Republic, having been drawn against the west Asian duo on the road to Brazil 2014. "We beat Kuwait 1-0 in the recent Asian Cup, so they must be eager to get revenge for that defeat. Lebanon are a very strong team physically and we'll be prepared well enough for the encounter," said Stielike of a Lebanon side who secured a famous 2-1 victory over the Taeguk Warriors during the aforementioned qualifying competition.
Japan's newly-appointed coach Vahid Halilhodzic let out a sigh of relief after seeing his side land in a group alongside Syria, Afghanistan, Singapore and Cambodia. "We are in a good group, our opponents are not at our level," said the Bosnian who took Algeria to the Round of 16 at Brazil 2014. "We want to win all our games through to Russia. I can’t say that winning our away games is going to be easy, but we have to go there with confidence."
Having failed to progress to the final round in qualifying during the past three FIFA World Cups, China PR's hopes of a place in the last 12 have been re-ignited by what seems a kind draw. While Maldives, Bhutan and Hong Kong look unlikely to pose a serious threat for the world's most populous nation, it is Qatar that has coach Alain Perrin concerned.
"They (Qatar) are a side with which I don't want to be drawn against," said the former Qatar U-23 coach. "I am familiar with their football. I think the Qataris are the strongest among the second seeds."
The 2022 FIFA World Cup hosts edged China 3-2 in a crucial qualifier which ultimately cost the latter a place at France 1998, before going on to progress during qualifying for South Africa 2010 at Chinese expense courtesy of a solitary-goal away victory. "Now that we cross paths again, we must do whatever we can to defeat them," he continued. "We should try hard to win all eight matches. Our aim is to go to Russia 2018, so we should get ourselves prepared."
Jordan made history during their previous attempt for Brazil 2014 by reaching the last ten, where they notably registered a spirited 2-1 home win over Australia. Such recent history will undoubtedly provide coach Ahmed Abdel-Qader and his charges with a degree of confidence as they aim to reprise that result against the Socceroos. "I think we have a strong chance of qualifying," said Abdel-Qader. "We can take heart from previous experiences against them [Australia]."
Also keen on making more of an impact is Lebanon captain Roda Antar, who is hoping to mount a serious challenge against Korea Republic. "Our task is not easy," the Hangzhou Greentown midfielder told FIFA.com. "But nothing is impossible considering that we have won against the Koreans before. We should go all out and win the opening game as this can provide us with a winning mentality."
United Arab Emirates are now regarded among the favourites to go to Russia 2018 on the back of their impressive run to the AFC Asian Cup semi-finals. Despite the growing expectations coach Mahdi Ali warned his side of the challenge posed by Saudi Arabia. "The competition will be very hard," he said. "Saudi Arabia will cause us problems. These matches will help build our team and we will be able to achieve our target of qualifying for the World Cup."
Elsewhere, even the lesser lights are aiming to prove they are not simply making up the numbers. "It is not a bad group for us because the gap that exists in class between us and the other teams should not be that big," Chinese Taipei captian Chen Po-Liang told FIFA.com. "Iraq are much-better than us but the other three teams (Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia) are not that strong. We have chances of drawing against them or even surprising them with a win.
"Our first-round campaign against Brunei provided us with lessons. We lost at home and had to leave it late to progress. So we should be better prepared this time. We should bear it in mind that this is a World Cup qualifer and we should embrace the games and enjoy the process as we aim to make progress."
With this campaign also doubling as qualification for the next AFC Asian Cup, India coach Stephen Constantine is aware that his side has plenty to play for despite being pitted against Iran and Oman. "It is a tough draw," said the Englishman. "One doesn’t need to explain the strengths of the two main rivals. And I am also aware of the difficulties of playing against Turkmenistan and Guam, who have made good progress. But it's always good to be in it and we will do all what is possible to get a result."