The heat in Kuala Lumpur must have jumped quite a few degrees when the draw was made for the AFC Final Asian Qualifying Round of the World Cup 2018. Some cracking ties emerged from the pot but both Australia, Asia Cup holders, and the team they beat in 2015, South Korea, were kept apart, in Groups B and A respectively. The Socceroos were also delighted to avoid the highest FIFA ranked nation in the Final Round, Iran who look favourites for qualification from Group A.
The top two teams from each group will automatically qualify for Russia 2018 while the two third-placed teams will endure a two-leg play off for the right to represent Asia against the nation that finishes fourth in the CONCACAF qualification tournament.
In Group B Australia and Japan look odds-on the reach Russia as the top two nations but Saudi Arabia and the UAE could cause an upset or two over the next couple of years.
Surprisingly, for some, Uzbekistan could be the outside bet to upset South Korea and Iran, ranked currently 56th and 42nd, respectively, in the FIFA rankings. The Uzebekis are currently ranked 66th by FIFA and there will be quite a few Uzebki Som bet on the national side to split Iran and Korea to snatch second place.
There`s going to be a lot of fun speculating upon and then seeing how that speculation comes to fruition or fails miserably over the next two years not to mention some excellent games in prospect. Thanks to the current plethora of televised football and overseas players starring in European leagues many of the players will be familiar to audiences well beyond the borders of the countries they represent.
Top of that list has to be Japan`s Shinji Okazaki. His dynamic performances all season have been driving Leicester City`s unstoppable assault on the Premier League title while still maintaining his impressive goal tally at international level, 48 goals in 100 appearances. Just behind him, in terms of goals and influence are Milan`s Japanese legend Keisuke Honda with 35 goals in 80 international appearances and Borussia Dortmund`s Shinji Kagawa who has netted 25 goals in his 79 international appearances. The other member of Japan`s `Big Four` is Southampton`s Maya Yoshida who has been performing heroically for the Saints as they drive towards European qualification.
One major factor in the growing international kudos for Japan lies in their squad selection. Eleven of the current squad ply their trade in the `J` League and 13 others play in European leagues. But overall a more impressive stat, as far as the growth of Japanese football is concerned, is the fact that over the past 12 months of the 38 players newly capped only six have been from non-Japanese clubs.
Australia has a very experienced squad and are strong favourites to reach Russia 2018. Winning the Asian title last year gave a massive boost to the Socceroos as well as their domestic game. Record scorer Tim Cahill may be 36 but he is going to play a huge part in Australia`s quest ro reach Russia. He desperately wants to add to his record and score in a fourth consecutive World Cup finals tournament. When the Final Round draw was made the former Everton striker said.
“Group B is the tougher challenge, when compared to Group A.” Skipper Mile Jedinak leads the cohort currently playing in England and he will be hoping that he can guide Crystal Palace to domestic success, Premier League survival as well as the FA Cup. Robbie Kruse from Bayer Leverkusen will be hoping to improve his international goal tally of just four in 40 games while 22 year old Brad Smith is making his name at left back for Liverpool. One to watch? Bradford City left back James Meredith who has had Premier League scouts checking out his game as The Bantams push for promotion to the Championship.
Japan and Australia should top Group B and qualify for Russia but Saudi Arabia could have a big say as far as the two top spots are concerned. The Saudis only dropped two points in qualifying for the Final Round but the three-time Asia Champions have not been at a World Cup since 2006. Who will ever forget one of the greatest goals in World Cup history when Saeed Owairan ran through the entire Belgian team, half the length of the pitch to win the game 1-0?
Iraq and the UAE only qualified by the skin of their teeth. Iraq advanced to the Final Round as the highest ranked of the top four group runners-up and the UAE qualified as 3rd ranked second placed nation. Thailand can be considered rank outsiders and are the lowest FIFA ranked nation in the Final Round, currently 119th.
Iran are the highest ranked FIFA nation in the Final Round, at 42nd, eight places above Australia but they only got started in the second half of their qualification campaign. A run of four straight victories saw them top Group D six points ahead of Oman. Iran are sure to miss the goals and experience of their most capped player, Javad Nekounam, 39 goals in 151 appearances, after he retired last year, aged 35. Although Charlton Athletic`s Reza Ghoochannejhad, who has an impressive international tally of 13 in 28 appearances may fill that void.
South Korea will push Iran all the way for top spot. They were very impressive in qualification and ended up as the only nation with a 100% record, winning all seven games and scoring 24 with NONE conceded. The Koreans have been at every World Cup finals since Mexico 1986, when they reached the semi-finals, as co-hosts, an Asian record.
South Korea`s two most experienced players both currently ply their trade in the Premier League; Lee Chung-yong, of Crystal Palace, with 72 caps and Ki Sung-yeung of Swansea City, who is currently the most capped squad member with 82 appearances. Though both are midfielders they carry the greatest goal threat for the side with seven in 72 games and eight in 82, respectively. Up front Porto`s 24 year old striker Suk Hyun-jun has scored three times in his eight appearances thus far for South Korea.
An outsider that might just gatecrash the plane for Russia could be Uzebekistan. Ranked at a decent 66th by FIFA they lost their opening qualification game 4-2 to DPR Korea but after bringing in Samuel Babayam as the new manager the team went on a spectacular run of seven straight victories so they may well be relishing the chance to reach a first-ever World Cup finals, especially considering the heartbreak of losing 9-8 to Jordan in a penalty shoot-out to miss out on Brazil 2014. Uzekistan`s danger men are Lokomotiv Tashkent`s 33 year old midfielder Server Djeparov who has scored 25 goals in his 113 international appearances while forward Alexander Geynrikh of Ordabasy Shymkent has a more impressive scoring record of 30 in 88.
China, despite the multi-million pound spending spree currently taking place in their domestic game, still have to impact on the international scene. The only time they featured in a World Cup finals was in 2002 when the tournament was staged in Asia for the first time, Japan and South Korea 2002, when they went out at the group stage.
Qatar may just have to focus on staging the World Cup on home soil rather than trouble themselves for Russia. Although fair play to them an impressive run in qualifying in tandem with favourable results elsewhere saw them become the first nation to reach the Final Round.
Syria faced every conceivable obstacle in qualifying, and then some. As well as domestic upheaval, unrest and civil war the national team had to contend with playing their home games in Oman. But they managed to finish second behind Japan and this will be the first time Syria has participated in the final round of a World Cup Qualifying competition since losing 3-1 to Iraq in the campaign for Mexico 1986.
One thing is for sure the growth of the world game has produced some fascinating qualifying tournaments. The AFC Final Round will be no different.
Written by Brian Beard