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Group B preview: Rivalries renewed in a tight section

UAE's Ahmed Khalil fights for the ball with Saudi's Salman Alfarj and Omar Ibrahim

Group B of the third round of the Asian qualifying competition for the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™ will see Australia and Japan come face to face again, the two having squared off in the final phase of the preliminaries for Brazil 2014. Also renewing very recent acquaintances will be Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates, who locked horns in the second round, as did Iraq and Thailand.

Most eyes will be on section favourites Australia and Japan, though the Saudis, Emiratis and Iraqis all have the goal of trying to return to the big stage after lengthy absences, while Thailand will be looking to spring a surprise after topping their second-round pool.

Saudi Arabia
United Arab Emirates

*The story
Australia and Japan met in the final round of the preliminaries for both Brazil 2014 and South Africa 2010, playing out three draws in four matches. It will be interesting to see if their respective new coaches, Ange Postecoglou and Vahid Halilodzic, can steer their charges to the world finals once more.

Given the strength of Group B, both sides look to have tough tasks ahead of them. Coached by the Dutchman Bert van Marwijk, Saudi Arabia will be doing all they can to make it back to the world finals, while United Arab Emirates, with Mahdi Ali at the helm, have made solid progress in the last few years, thanks to a group of players that contested the FIFA U-20 World Cup Egypt 2009 and the Men’s Olympic Football Tournament London 2012.

For their part, Iraq will look to restore their former glory and make their first world finals since Mexico 1986, though they will need to find some consistent form, having qualified as one of the best runners-up in the second round. Finally, group outsiders Thailand are the only team of the six never to have graced world football’s premier tournament.

Must-watch matches
Japan-Iraq, 6 October 2016 and 13 June 2017
*Since making their World Cup debut at France 1998, Japan have never failed to reach the finals. Four years before that maiden appearance came what is known in Japanese football as the “Agony of Doha”, a 2-2 draw with Iraq on 28 October 1993, a game in which the Iraqis scored an injury-time equaliser to deny Japan a place at USA 1994. Both sides know each other well, having also met twice in the preliminaries for Brazil 2014, with Japan winning 1-0 on both occasions.

*Did you know?
Saudi Arabia’s last World Cup appearance came at Germany 2006, where they finished bottom of Group H. Though the Saudis went on to make the final of the 2007 AFC Asian Cup, the Green Falcons have since underperformed, missing out on qualification for South Africa 2010 and Brazil 2014, while also tumbling out of the last two Asian Cups in the first round. Results improved following Van Marwijk’s appointment in August 2015, however, with the Saudis enjoying the biggest points rise in the February 2016 FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking and also going unbeaten in topping Group A in the second round of Russia 2018 qualifiers. In charge of the Netherlands at South Africa 2010, Van Marwijk is aiming to make a return to the big stage, this time via Asia. 

Having made his international debut in a USA 1994 qualifier against Japan on 8 April 1993, Thailand coach Kiatisuk Senamuang will once again be coming up against the Samurai Blue. His country’s most capped player with 131 appearances to his name, Senamuang will hope to fare better than he did that first time, when the Japanese emerged 1-0 winners.

The stat
7 - **the number of times the Saudis and the Emiratis have met in World Cup qualifiers, with the former winning three, drawing three and losing one. Their latest encounter was a 1-1 draw in Abu Dhabi in March 2016.

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