South Korea- Asia’s most successful world cup side ever are top seeds in this group. The South Koreans survived a scare in the penultimate round when they needed to secure at least a draw in their final game against Kuwait to secure qualification. However having made an appearance at the last seven world cups their experience and know how should see them through, though with tricky ties to Qatar and Lebanon (who upset them with a 2-1 victory in Beirut in the previous round), they will have to work hard to get there directly.
Iran-Carlos Queiroz’ men are certainly on the march. They had a very impressive third round, going unbeaten in all six games and scoring a remarkable 17 goals; the highest of any team in that round. They’ve recently had the addition of Wolfsburg’s impressive Dejagh to their squad and will be looking to book a direct spot. However with tricky Qatar in the group and Uzbekistan looking to carry their form through to the final round, they may find life difficult. The Azadi stadium will be the key to their qualifiers, 100,000 fervent fans will strike fear into their opponents, regardless of who they may be. Queiroz sums it up well: “I think we have a good chance”.
Uzbekistan- The enigma of Asian football. Always touted as the up and coming Asian team. A mainstay in the final round of Asian qualification since their first world cup qualifying campaign in 1998, they are always impressive in the penultimate round then go on to disappoint when the pace picks up. In the last two qualifying campaigns they have lost only one game in the third round, and have only won two games in the final round amassing a paltry nine points in the process. A damning stat that paints a clear picture, if Uzbekistan want to come true to their billing as Asia’s favourites for first time qualifiers to the world cup they need to break this psychological barrier and transfer their fearsome third round form into the final round. The White Wolves will take some scalps if this were to occur.
Qatar- The world cup 2022 hosts are a problematic foe. Never good enough to make the world cup, yet equally capable of smashing the hopes of regional and continental giants. With their pool of foreign sourced players, and the motivation of making a world cup prior to hosting in 2022, Al-Annabi will be one to watch. Doha could well prove to be a graveyard for the higher ranked teams in this group, but whether Soria and friends can make it to Brazil is another matter.
Lebanon- This is Lebanon’s best performance ever at a world cup qualification campaign, and with their 2-1 win at home against continental giants South Korea fresh in the memory they will be spirited during this round. I don’t think they will have the stamina to keep up during this gruelling eight game round, and their results on the road leave much to be desired; they shipped ten away goals to South Korea and UAE. Theo Bücker’s men are a fine addition to the final round line up and their coach clearly knows the players very well and is getting the best out of them. They evidently have ample belief, encapsulated by these words from the manager: “For us, we are not dreaming and it doesn’t matter who we have to play against”. More likely to cause the odd upset than to get into the top 3 spots, they will no doubt enjoy every game they play in this round.
Australia- The Aussies are Asia’s newest member, but they have settled into the continent well. Their key weapon in this qualifying round is consistency and a remarkable home record; Australia have not been beaten at home in a world cup qualifier since June 2008 when they fielded a weakened team to China. They qualified to the 2010 world cup finals without losing a single game in the final round and having amassed 20 points. Their robustness gives them an edge over Japan who seem more likely to falter. However with Japan, Oman (the only team who beat them in the third round this year), and Iraq in this group, Coach Osieck knows it won’t be a walk in the park: “It’s going to be a tough group, particularly the road games…We have to be right there from the start, from minute one.” Ultimately, however, they should qualify if they keep their home form.
Japan- Asia’s reigning champions and perennial world cup qualifiers since 1998. They qualified second to the very impressive Uzbekistan (in their third round form). The Samurai Blue have had their schedule changed so they can participate in the confederations cup to be held in Brazil next year. Given their record in world cup qualifiers, one would expect them to make it through without much hassle. However, recently they have waivered with some wayward results. Whether this is an early sign of a jittery period or just an odd result or two remains to be seen.
Iraq- Their journey to Brazil continues, with Zico showing them the way to the Samba party on the beaches of Rio. Iraq faltered at the very beginning of the previous round but surged back to win their final five games and top the group impressively, the key results coming in the form of back to back home and away victories against China; a sign that Zico is beginning to get to grips with the team. Arguably their best form since their 2007 Asian Cup win, the Lions of Mesopotamia will be carrying the hopes of their nation in the final round for the first time since the 2002 qualifiers. Iraq’s record against Australia is unquestionable and they will look to better their neighbours Jordan once again. Consistency is their real issue, compounded by the fact they play their “home” games at neutral Doha. Iraq should gain at least the play off place, with one eye on direct qualification. Zico is looking beyond this round: “We will be working hard. I will be using all my experience and skills to help coach the team to hopefully make it to the World Cup in Brazil.”
Jordan- Took the continent by storm in the prior round. Adnan Hamed’s men started strongly with a win against Iraq, and continued to top the group until the final game. They play on the break and are well disciplined, their results were validated in their recent friendly against the resurgent Iran, where they drew 2-2 in Dubai after leading 2-0 well into the second half. Hamed is a tactically astute manager and is a master at tuning his sides to get the very best he can from every single player. A quiet and contemplative man, he is both authoritative and well respected, he had the following to say earlier today (translated by me): “We will be ready and will be competitive and shall do everything in our powers to give a good account of ourselves and prove that we are worthy of a ticket to the world cup finals”. Al-Nashama are not to be sniffed at.
Oman- Inconsistency is the trademark of Oman. At times they can look dazzling with incisive passing and sharp finishing, however the flip side is the dull and predictable Oman, lacking spark and invention. This lack of consistency will likely prove costly in this round where every game counts. With Al Habsi at one end and Al-Hosani at the other, Oman on their day can overcome any opposition as they showed by beating Australia 1-0 recently, but they can be considered the weakest team in the group. The Omani FA know this well enough, their chairman declaring: “It will be a tough ride for us.”
So with that, we come to the all important 0.5 spot, that oddity; borne of FIFA’s confederation weighting system. For the AFC teams traditionally the foe at this stage was the OFC candidate (previously Australia who are now part of the AFC). However with four 0.5 spots making a nuisance of themselves in four different continets, FIFA had a stroke of genius and decided to hold a draw to determine which confederation candidate would play which. As a result the AFC were drawn against the CONMEBOL (South America for those that don’t know) representative. At the time of writing this team is none other than the fearsome Chile lead by Borghi… if there was any way to motivate a team to push fastidiously for a direct qualification, this would be it.
The two teams finishing third in the Asian fourth round will play each other in a two legged tie, and the winner of this will play the fifth representative from the South American continent.
The excitement begins on 3rd June…bring it on!