Asian contenders hampered by 11th-hour Cup suspense

HONG KONG • Seven Asian nations will discover their World Cup football fate tomorrow as the race to Russia 2018 draws to a climax.

With Iran and Japan having already booked their places at next year's Finals, Australia, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, South Korea, Syria, Uzbekistan and China all jostle for the remaining tickets.

The top two teams from both Asian groups qualify directly, with the third-placed sides to battle each other for the right to enter an intercontinental play-off against a side from the Concacaf region.

Australia's fate continues to rest in the hands of the Japanese, who have decided to rest captain Makoto Hasebe and midfielder Shinji Kagawa for the match against Saudi Arabia in Jeddah.

Australia take on Thailand in Melbourne, knowing victory may not be enough to ensure an automatic place, should Saudi Arabia defeat Japan a few hours later.

"I still truly believe that we will go out Tuesday night and we'll put in a good performance. Whether it's Wednesday that it's announced that we're going to a World Cup or whether we have to wait a bit longer, it will happen," said Australia's stand-in captain Mark Milligan of his team's prospects.

Australia are third in Group B and trail Saudi Arabia on goal difference, meaning wins for both teams could see the Saudis seal their spot in Russia and Ange Postecoglou's team head to the play-offs.

NOTE OF CONFIDENCE

I still truly believe that we will go out Tuesday night and we'll put in a good performance. Whether it's Wednesday that it's announced that we're going to a World Cup or whether we have to wait a bit longer, it will happen.

MARK MILLIGAN, Australia captain, on his team's chances of qualifying for the World Cup Finals.

The United Arab Emirates, fourth in the group following their win over the Saudis on Tuesday, also retain a mathematical hope. But they would need a big win over Iraq plus heavy defeats for both Australia and Saudi Arabia to claim third place and a route through the play-offs.

Group A has a four-way tussle for the two remaining World Cup spots. Second-placed South Korea can qualify directly for an eighth successive World Cup appearance with a win over fourth-placed Uzbekistan in Tashkent. A defeat, however, could be catastrophic for the South Koreans if third-placed Syria can upset Iran away.

That could put Syria, who are ahead of Uzbekistan on goal difference, in second place and grant them automatic passage to Russia.

A win over Iran, who remain unbeaten in this phase of qualifying, would be a stunning achievement for a side who have been forced to play all their home games away owing to the civil war at home.

But Iran coach Carlos Queiroz has stressed that his team will not ease up, despite having already qualified for a fifth World Cup.

"To think that these players are going to make it easy against Syria is to not know them, their professionalism, character and pride serving the Iranian nation," said the Portuguese.

On the fringes are Marcello Lippi's China, who could yet steal a place in the play-offs if they beat Qatar away and both Uzbekistan and Syria lose.

REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 04, 2017, with the headline 'Asian contenders hampered by 11th-hour Cup suspense'. Print Edition | Subscribe