HONG KONG • War-torn Syria and China are both aiming to pull off a near-miracle as Asian qualifying for the 2018 World Cup heads into a final showdown today.
Among Asia's heavyweights, Australia's progress is far from assured and South Korea are in danger of missing out on their first World Cup since 1982 in what will be a nail-biting last round of group games.
Perhaps indicating rising standards in the region, competition for Asia's 4.5 places at next year's Russia World Cup has been unusually intense, with only Japan and Iran qualified so far.
Group A is particularly unpredictable as South Korea, Syria, Uzbekistan and Marcello Lippi's China remain in the running for either the second automatic berth or a place in the play-offs by finishing third.
Syria, despite playing their home games in Malaysia to avoid their country's bitter civil war, occupy the play-off spot.
They play arguably the night's toughest fixture - away to Iran, who have yet to concede a goal - as they look to stay ahead of Uzbekistan and China and perhaps even leapfrog South Korea into second place.
Chinese success would be just as eye-catching if they manage to rise from fifth in the group to snatch a play-off spot and stay in the hunt for just their second World Cup appearance.
If they beat Qatar, and South Korea and Iran win against Uzbekistan and Syria respectively, 77th-ranked team can celebrate a major boost in their plan to become one of the world's top football nations.
"I always tell my players, when there is still a theoretical chance, we have no reason to give up. We should make every effort to achieve it," China's Italian coach Lippi said.
Uzbekistan have a torrid history against South Korea, who beat them to an automatic qualifying spot for both the 2006 and 2014 World Cups. The Uzbeks lost in the play-offs each time.
"This is our last chance. Either we beat South Korea or we should end football in our country," said Uzbekistan captain Odil Ahmedov, according to the Fifa website.
"They're our bogey team, it's a fact. But we're playing at home and we have a duty to our fans."
UZBEKISTAN V SOUTH KOREA
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