Wednesday 23 March 2016, 08:10

Decisive duels await Asia's 2018 hopefuls

Qatar and Korea Republic have spent four months holidaying alone. They will, over the course of two forthcoming matchdays, receive the company of another six section conquerors and four best-placed runners-up in the final round of Asian qualifying for the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™.

Appetisingly, the top two in four pools will clash on the final day. First, though, Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates, Australia and Jordan, Iran and Oman, and Japan and Syria must avoid unforeseen slip-ups at the penultimate hurdle. That is when Thailand, the Pot 3 outsiders who are five points clear, require just a draw against Iraq in Iran. Anything less, however, would agonisingly leave their opponents as the favourites for the pool’s automatic ticket.

Let take you on an extended tour of Thursday’s 15 fixtures.

The big game *Iraq-Thailand*

Others know them as ‘The War Elephants’. Their fans call them ‘The Barcelona of Asia’. And it is with that tika-taka style that Thailand have defeated the higher-ranked Vietnam home and away, taken six points off Chinese Taipei, and scored two late goals to hold Iraq in Bangkok to leave themselves a point away from the unthinkable in Group F. Getting it against Iraq is, nevertheless, a big ask. The Mexico 1986 participants may be ‘hosting’ the game in bordering Iran, but they boast players of the calibre of Udinese’s Ali Adnan and the evergreen Younis Mahmoud. Iraq are at home to Vietnam on the final day, so Chanathip Songkrasin, Theerathon and Co head to Tehran knowing they will probably need a result. Will they get it? It is anyone’s guess, but it will be fun watching the pass princes try.

The other attractions Saudi Arabia head second-placed United Arab Emirates by three on points and goal difference in Group A, and both are expected to beat respective visitors Malaysia and Palestine. The Green Falcons, for whom Saeed Al-Owairan scored arguably one of the greatest goals in World Cup history at the RFK Stadium in Washington, will nevertheless be out to outscore the UAE and effectively clinch top spot before the Persian Gulf rivals clash in Abu Dhabi.

It is a similar scenario in Group B. Australia and Jordan, who are two points off the pace, square off in Sydney on the final day. First, however, they must avoid stumbles at home to Tajikistan and Bangladesh, respectively.

China may be three points behind Hong Kong in Group C, but they have reason for optimism in the race to finish as runners-up. The Korea/Japan 2002 participants have a game in hand, a superior goal difference, and host a Maldives side they overpowered 3-0 away, while their rivals visit free-scoring Qatar in their final outing. The Chinese entertain the Qataris on the concluding matchday.

Oman may only be three points behind Group D leaders Iran, whom they still have to play, but their vastly inferior goal difference means they really require an unlikely Indian favour in Tehran. The Reds, for their part, entertain Guam in Muscat.

Japan and Syria both won 6-0 away to Afghanistan and Cambodia respectively. The emperors from the east and the emerging Eagles from the west will be expected to cruise to victory in the return fixtures – results which should send both through in Group E.

“We may be through, but we still want to advance with maximum points and no goals against,” said Uli Stielike ahead of his Korea Republic side’s Group G swansong. That was discomforting to Lebanese ears, with Miodrag Radulovic’s team having ground to make up in the battle for best runners-up slots. Kuwait’s final two games will not unfold due to the FA’s suspension.

Uzbekistan are one point beneath Group H leaders Korea DPR and boast a superior goal difference heading into their game in hand. A comfortable friendly defeat of Lebanon last month took gave the White Wolves a sixth successive victory, and they will expect to breeze past Philippines, whom they thrashed 5-1 in the sides’ last encounter, and leave their destiny in their own hands. Bahrain and Yemen meet in the other contest.

Player to watch In their quest for goals, the Saudis will be delighted to have Mohammad Al-Sahlawi leading their line. The 29-year-old has thrived over the last two years, and has hit 22 goals in as many internationals.

Did you know? Andrei Piatnitski, having already represented Uzbekistan, played against eventual champions Brazil at USA 1994. Server Djeparov, the White Wolves’ long-time poster boy, can at least boast that his son is named after a man who scored in three World Cups: Raul. Ironically, the Spanish icon also named his first son after a footballer: Jorge Valdano, whose goal helped Argentina win the Mexico 1986 Final.

The quote Kiatisuk Senamuang, Thailand coach: “Nobody gave us a chance at the start. Now we’re on the verge of making it. We’re not afraid of the Iraqis. They need six points while we only need a draw. We’ll be going for the win though – that and playing attractive football are things we believe in.”

Penultimate matchday fixtures *24 March *Group A: Saudi Arabia-Malaysia, United Arab Emirates-Palestine Group B: Australia-Tajikistan, Jordan-Bangladesh Group C: China PR-Maldives, Qatar-Hong Kong Group D: Iran-India, Oman-Guam Group E: Japan-Afghanistan, Syria-Cambodia Group F: Vietnam-Chinese Taipei, Iraq-Thailand Group G: Korea Republic-Lebanon Group H: Uzbekistan-Philippines, Bahrain-Yemen

Regulations: The second-placed teams in the five-team groups will have their results against the group's bottom side discounted to create an equal standing compared to Group F, which only has four teams. See regulations.