The AFC 2022 World Cup Qualifiers Draw Closer to Completion
The AFC World Cup qualifiers kicked off the January window with just four matchdays left to grab a ticket to the 2022 tournament in Qatar. After their performances on Matchday One of the break, the teams at the top of the standings had plenty to smile about, with one team reaching early qualification and the rest moving ever closer to the World Cup dream.
The AFC Qualifiers
The Asian Football Confederation (AFC) qualifiers competition is currently in its third and final round. The twelve remaining teams, divided into two groups of six, are contesting the top four slots to win their places at the 2022 tournament. The two third-placed teams will meet again in a fourth-round in May to determine who goes through to the inter-confederation playoffs in June for another chance at qualifying. The January window sees two of the final four matchdays played out. The initial January matchday saw the final twelve locked in a battle to boost their chances of winning those all-important qualification spots.
In Group A, Iran made the first day of the January window's biggest gain. With yet another win over Iraq, the Iranians continued their unbeaten streak across the tournament and pushed themselves to early qualification on points. Despite their win over Lebanon, South Korea just missed out on booking their slot at the World Cup competition after the United Arab Emirates boosted their qualification chances with a victory over Syria. However, the Koreans are still well-placed to claim their spot in Qatar over the upcoming matchdays.
In Group B, after their loss to Australia, Vietnam was officially pushed out of the running for the World Cup. The win for the Australians, on the other hand, gave a considerable boost to their qualification chances. The Socceroos sit just one point behind second-place Japan, who were also victorious on Matchday One with a win over China. But, Saudi Arabia tops the table after their seventh straight win of the competition. They beat Oman to maintain their four-point lead.
The standings after Matchday 1 of the January break:
|South Korea||POINTS17||GOAL DIFFERENCE7|
|United Arab Emirates||POINTS9||GOAL DIFFERENCE1|
|Saudi Arabia||POINTS19||GOAL DIFFERENCE7|
South Korea scored another win this tournament against Lebanon. Unbeaten in the competition so far, Korea were dominant on the ball throughout most of the match. However, The Reds found it difficult to make any meaningful progress. As they have throughout the tournament, Lebanon put up a stout defence. Nonetheless, the Korean's single goal was all that was needed to win the full points for the match. The deadlock was finally broken in the 46th minute, just before half-time. Cho Gue-sung slid home a cross from Hwang Ui-jo to take the win. On seventeen points and just two behind table leader Iran, South Korea is on the brink of qualifying.
Rivals Iran and Iraq met on the field on the initial day of the window. Though relatively evenly matched in terms of time on the ball, Iraq struggled to make any progress through Iran's defensive line, with only three shots on target. On the other hand, Iran struck three times as many shots on target, with only a single goal needed to take the match. Veteran of the Iranian team, Mehdi Taremi, scored the winning goal with a close-range strike from a pass courtesy of teammate Ali Reza Jahanbakhsh. Team Melli qualified early on points with the ensuing victory, booking their place at the 2022 World Cup. Iraq stayed in fifth place on four points.
With only two wins in the tournament's third round and eight points behind second-placed South Korea, the UAE needed a win to boost their chances of qualifying and secure their spot in third place for a chance at the playoffs. On the day, the resulting victory was a hard-won fight. Syria played an offensive game and created a multitude of opportunities. The Syrians also defended well, which kept the final score from being much higher for The Whites. However, in the end, the UAE's striker Caio Canedo Correa opened the scoring in the 43rd minute, and midfielder Yahya Al Ghassani struck home again in the 70th to secure the win. The UAE maintained their position in third and kept their slim hopes of qualification alive with an additional three points on the board. Syria remains in last place on two points.
Australia took on Vietnam at home. The Socceroos desperately needed a win after falling from the top spot to third, following a defeat against Japan and a draw against Saudi Arabia and, rather embarrassingly, a draw opposite fifth-placed China. The Aussies showed their intent early in the game, dominating the ball and applying pressure on the Vietnamese goal. The first goal came just 20 seconds into the match but was disallowed following a VAR review. The opening goal came less than thirty minutes later with a close-range header from Jamie Maclaren. The goal-score was doubled for the Socceroos before half-time as Tom Rogic converted a through-ball. Though Vietnam applied pressure early in the second half, with a powerful shot, saved by Matt Rayn, almost winning one back for the team, they failed to ruffle the Aussie's feathers. Two more goals from Australia, courtesy of substitutes Craig Goodwin and Riley McGree, gave the team from down under an emphatic win. The Aussies sit in third on fourteen points.
Second-placed Japan continued their winning streak on the opening day of the break with a 2-0 defeat over China. The opening goal in the first 13 minutes of the game came after China's Wang Senchao slid to block a cross but hit the ball with his arm. The resulting penalty allowed Japan's Yuya Osaka to bury the ball at the back of the net. The early goal seemed to unsettle the Chinese, who struggled to make an impact from thereon. Japan's Junya Ito doubled his team's lead in the 61st minute, with a headed cross. Japan maintained their spot in second and automatic qualification place on fifteen points.
Unbeaten Saudi Arabia took on a spirited Oman for their first match of the break, and while they took the win 1-0, it was a hard-fought battle. Despite missing several players from their regular lineup, Oman was well organised and disciplined. They held Saudi Arabia off during the first half, causing the Saudis to struggle for control. However, the Omanis wasted chances, and, in the end, the Green Falcons opened the scoring early in the second half with a strike from Firas Al Buraikan. The winning goal came from a rebounded save from Omani keeper Faiyz Al Rashidi, whose palm off landed in front of Al Buraikan, who struck home from close range. The win took Saudi Arabia to nineteen points, four ahead of Japan and ever closer to qualification in the top spot.
With Iran already through to the 2022 tournament, South Korea are next in line in Group B to qualify. If they can beat Syria in their final match of the January break, they should have done enough. The UAE, meanwhile, will take on Asian football giants Iran in their remaining game of the window. To maintain their third-place position and a chance of qualifying for the playoffs, they need a win or a draw to keep Lebanon at arm's length. Lebanon faces Iraq in their next game of the tournament. Their last match against one another ended in a goalless draw. If the Lebanese want to keep their World Cup dreams alive, they will need to go on the offensive and maintain their defensive stance.
Saudi Arabia is well on its way to qualifying for the World Cup. However, to maintain their top spot and their unbroken record in this tournament, they will need to beat formidable opponent Japan in their next match. Japan will be gunning for the top spot; the ensuing game promises to be explosive. Meanwhile, Australia, now they appear to have their attacking mojo back, will need to beat Oman to keep pace with the top two leaders and keep their automatic qualification dreams alive.
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