Asian World Cup qualifying comes to the boil in decisive week
By Nick Mulvenney
SYDNEY (Reuters) - Dreams will be fulfilled and others dashed across the continent as a large part of the Asian contingent for next year's World Cup finals in Russia is decided in the last two rounds of qualifying over eight days from Tuesday.
Iran qualified with three rounds remaining while Iraq and Thailand can no longer advance, but nine countries still have a chance, however slender, of claiming a ticket to Russia for next year's finals.
Of those, Japan, South Korea, Saudi Arabia, Australia, United Arab Emirates, Uzbekistan and Syria could still clinch the direct qualification that comes from finishing in the top two in each of the two third round groups.
Qatar, the hosts of the subsequent World Cup in 2022, and ambitious China will be playing long odds to secure third place in Group A and the tricky playoff route to soccer's global showpiece that goes with it.
The third placed teams in each group play each other in a two-legged playoff in October with the aggregate winner facing the fourth-placed team from the Central and North America (CONCACAF) qualifying in November.
While United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia kick off just over a week of crunch ties in Al Ain on Tuesday, Japan have the best chance of being the fourth team to reach the finals when they host Asian champions Australia on Thursday.
A point clear of the Saudis and Socceroos in Group B, victory in Saitama will secure Samurai Blue a spot at the finals for the sixth successive tournament going back to 1998.
Their South Korean neighbours have an even longer pedigree and can clinch a ninth straight appearance if they beat Iran in Seoul on Thursday and Uzbekistan lose to Marcello Lippi's China in Wuhan.
Qualification has not run smooth for either of the East Asian powers, however, with coach Vahid Halilhodzic under heavy pressure in Japan and South Korea under the new management of Shin Tae-yong after the sacking of Uli Stielike last month. [nL4N1LE2LC] [nL4N1L82DS]
Uzbekistan coach Samvel Babayan has promised his team will be ruthless against China, who need a win to stay alive, as they look to set up a winner-takes-all clash against the South Koreans in Tashkent on Aug. 31.
The Uzbeks are third in Group A, a point behind South Korea, and targeting a first appearance at soccer's global showpiece. [nL4N1LD0TD]
Syria, who have been playing their home matches in Malaysia because of the civil war, are three points behind Uzbekistan but are still in with a shout of automatic qualification if they beat Qatar in Melaka on Thursday.
Defeat would end Qatar's slender hopes of a third-place finish and consign them to the ignominy of becoming the first World Cup hosts not to have previously qualified for a tournament.
Saudi Arabia have the strongest chance of representing the Arabian Gulf in Russia as they look to reach the finals for the first time since 2006.
Their tie against their Emirati neighbours gives them a chance to move to the top of the group pending the Saitama clash and they have the comfort of knowing they will host the Japanese in Jeddah in their final qualifier next week.
The UAE, who conclude their campaign in Jordan against Iraq next week, still have a mathematical chance of a top-two finish but are sweating on the fitness of inspirational midfielder Omar Abdulrahman ahead of their match against the Saudis.
Australia, who have appeared at the last three finals, are without injured skipper Mile Jedinak for their final two qualifiers but will be happy to take a point home from Japan ahead of next week's clash with group whipping boys Thailand.
(Editing by John O'Brien)