Asian 2022 World Cup Qualifiers - The Imminent Final Round
There is less than one week until the third and final round of the Asian 2022 World Cup qualifiers kicks off. When the starting whistle sounds, twelve of Asia's best national teams will take to the field and battle for their place at the upcoming tournament in Qatar. Four tickets to take Asia's premier squads directly to the world's most loved sporting event are up for grabs. One other spot at the World Cup can be reached via the intercontinental playoffs. For the twelve teams in contention, there is everything to play for.
The Road to Qatar
Of the forty-six Asian teams who fought for a place at the next World Cup tournament, only twelve remain after the first two rounds. Australia, China, Iraq, Iran, Japan, Korea Republic, Lebanon, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Syria, the United Arab Emirates and Vietnam secured their places in Round Three, as winners or best group runners up, at the end of the second round of the competition in June 2021. Their victory came two years after the first round of the qualifiers began, and the journey so far hasn't been an easy ride.
While Round One of the competition got underway as planned, the coronavirus pandemic reared its ugly head one year into the event. Amid COVID-19's rampage across the globe, world football, including the qualifiers, were thoroughly disrupted. Since that time, the second round of the qualifiers has suffered countless postponements and delays, venue and format changes, and the withdrawal of North Korea and its impacts. Teams have been forced to quarantine for international matches, play under tight restrictions with no supporters in the stands, and play with numbers of their squad and the team missing due to the illness. However, with perseverance and co-operation from all teams, football associations and a myriad of host countries' governments, the final round is upon us.
The final round, Round Three, will be played out over five international windows (September, October and November '21 and February and March '22). The twelve remaining teams have been drawn into two groups of six. Each group will play each other home and away in a round-robin format. The top two teams from each group will advance directly to the 2022 FIFA World Cup. The two third-placed teams from each group will play an additional home and away game against one another to decide which of the two goes forward to the intercontinental playoffs.
Groups, Match Schedules and Venues
The draw for Round Three’s two groups was held in July. The groups were drawn based on current FIFA rankings. The twelve teams were seeded in pairs before being divided into two groups of six.
The opening two fixtures of Round Three will kick off on September 2nd with the first six matches of the tournament. A further six games will be held on September 7th.
The home and away round-robin format of the third round dictated the host countries for each match. However, due to the coronavirus pandemic, the necessary travel restrictions imposed by some governments, and the security issues faced by some host nations, some matches will be played in neutral venues - Qatar's Khalifa International Stadium in Doha and Jordan's King Abdullah II Stadium in Amman*.
Groups A and B, match schedules and match locations are as follows:
|National Team||Current FIFA Ranking||Round Two Group Finishing Position|
|National TeamIR Iran||Current FIFA Ranking26th||Round Two Group Finishing PositionGroup winner|
|National TeamKorea Republic||Current FIFA Ranking36th||Round Two Group Finishing PositionGroup winner|
|National TeamUnited Arab Emirates (UAE)||Current FIFA Ranking68th||Round Two Group Finishing PositionGroup winner|
|National TeamIraq||Current FIFA Ranking70th||Round Two Group Finishing PositionBest Runner Up|
|National TeamSyria||Current FIFA Ranking80th||Round Two Group Finishing PositionGroup winner|
|National TeamLebanon||Current FIFA Ranking98th||Round Two Group Finishing PositionBest Runner Up|
|Opponents||Date/Time (local time - Qatar)||Venue|
|OpponentsSouth Korea vs Iraq||Date/Time (local time - Qatar)September 2nd / 14:00||VenueSeoul World Cup Stadium, South Korea|
|OpponentsIran vs Syria||Date/Time (local time - Qatar)September 2nd / 19:00||VenueAzadi Stadium, Iran|
|OpponentsUAE vs Lebanon||Date/Time (local time - Qatar)September 2nd / 19:45||VenueZabeel Stadium, UEA|
|OpponentsSouth Korea vs Lebanon||Date/Time (local time - Qatar)September 7th / 14:00||VenueSuwon World Cup Stadium, South Korea|
|OpponentsSyria vs UAE||Date/Time (local time - Qatar)September 7th / 19:00||Venue*King Abdullah II Stadium, Jordan|
|OpponentsIraq vs Iran||Date/Time (local time - Qatar)September 7th / 21:00||Venue*Khalifa International Stadium, Qatar|
|National Team||FIFA Ranking||Round Two Group Finishing Position|
|National TeamJapan||FIFA Ranking24th||Round Two Group Finishing PositionGroup winner|
|National TeamAustralia||FIFA Ranking35th||Round Two Group Finishing PositionGroup winner|
|National TeamSaudi Arabia||FIFA Ranking61st||Round Two Group Finishing PositionGroup winner|
|National TeamChina PR||FIFA Ranking71st||Round Two Group Finishing PositionBest Runner Up|
|National TeamOman||FIFA Ranking79th||Round Two Group Finishing PositionBest Runner Up|
|National TeamVietnam||FIFA Ranking92nd||Round Two Group Finishing PositionBest Runner Up|
|Opponents||Date/Time (local time - Qatar)||Venue|
|OpponentsJapan vs Oman||Date/Time (local time - Qatar)September 2nd / 13:10||VenueSuita City Stadium, Japan|
|OpponentsAustralia vs China||Date/Time (local time - Qatar)September 2nd / 21:00||Venue*Khalifa International Stadium, Qatar|
|OpponentsSaudi Arabia vs Vietnam||Date/Time (local time - Qatar)September 2nd / 21:00||VenueKing Saud University Stadium, Saudi Arabia|
|OpponentsVietnam vs Australia||Date/Time (local time - Qatar)September 7th / 15:00||VenueMỹ Đình National Stadium, Vietnam|
|OpponentsChina vs Japan||Date/Time (local time - Qatar)September 7th / 18:00||Venue*Khalifa International Stadium, Qatar|
|OpponentsOman vs Saudi Arabia||Date/Time (local time - Qatar)September 7th / 19:00||VenueSultan Qaboos Stadium, Oman|
Outlooks and Predictions
Iran and South Korea are odds on favourites of Group B to win their places at the World Cup. Second best team in Asia and 26th top team globally, Iran has qualified for the tournament on five occasions since their qualifying debut in 1974 - though they have yet to progress beyond the Groups Stage. South Korea, Asia's third top team and 36th in the world has qualified consistently in every world cup since 1986, reaching 4th place in the 2002 tournament and the Round of 16 in 2010. Against one another, Iran and South Korea have faced each other on 31 occasions (as of 2019), including at nine World Cup qualifiers. Iran has prevailed 13 times to South Korea's nine wins; they have drawn against one another on nine occasions. They are pretty evenly matched on paper; the race to the top two group slots should be a close-run thing. However, qualifying for the World Cup at this stage is not a foregone conclusion.
Close rivals to Iran, Iraq has only qualified for the World Cup tournament once, in 1986. Nonetheless, the 70th ranked team have beaten or held Iran to a goalless finish all but once in their last four meetings. The Iraqi team has also placed higher than Iran twice during the previous six Asian Cup tournaments - Asia's premier continental football competition. The Iranians will have to pull out all the stops over the coming months to keep their adversary in check.
The United Arab Emirates last appeared in the World Cup in 1990. The 68th ranked squad had a mixed second round in the 2022 qualifiers losing to Vietnam and Thailand in their first four matches, but the team turned their fortunes around, topping their group on 18 points and a 16 point goal difference. Against their Round Three Group A opponents, previous qualifying matches have also been a mixed bag. In the 2010 qualifiers against Iran and Syria, the UAE drew a game against each and lost the other. At the 2014 qualifiers against Lebanon, the team lost one game and won the second. Versus South Korea in 2014, the UAE lost both their qualifying matches. So, while the UAE squad have not been consistent, they could still pose a threat.
Syria, meanwhile, could be Group A's dark horse. 80th in the world, the current squad had an exceptional second round of the 2022 qualifiers with an almost unbeaten run, losing only to China in their final match. And while the Syrians have never appeared in a World Cup against their Group A rivals, the team drew with both the UAE and Lebanon in their last meeting and drew one and lost one against Iran in the 2010 World Cup qualifier meetings.
And finally, Lebanon, the lowest-ranked in the group and yet to make their debut at the World Cup, may also throw up a few surprises. During the second round of the qualifiers, Lebanon successfully held Korea to a goalless draw during their first meeting and lost by only one goal during their second contest with the South Koreans.
Group B's favourites include Japan, Australia and Saudi Arabia.
Asia's top team and 26th best in the world, Japan, has qualified for every World Cup since 1998. The team has also taken the Asian Cup four times since 1992. As runners-up to Qatar in the 2019 event, they beat Vietnam, Saudi Arabia and Oman along the way. In the last two decades of World Cup qualifiers, Japan has beaten rivals Australia (2014 and 2018) and Saudi Arabia (2018) to reach the finals. However, though they had already qualified in 2018, the Japanese were beaten by Saudi Arabia 1-0 in their final group match. Japan were also victors against Oman at the 2006 and 2010 qualifiers. Against China in their last two EAFF East Asia Asian Cup matches, Japan beat their opponents 2-1 on both occasions. After an almost flawless 2022 qualifying campaign to date, with eight wins from eight, a total of 46 goals and only two conceded goals, the Japanese stand a more than fair chance of winning their group. However, ongoing rivals Australia and West Asian stalwarts Saudi Arabia will not make the Samurai Blues journey plain sailing.
Third in Asia and 36th globally, Australia's Socceroos have been at the World Cup finals on five occasions - the last four times consecutively. During the 2022 qualifiers, the squad were the only other team besides Japan in the second round to maintain a perfect record of eight wins. Only one of the squad's victories were on home soil, and with a total of 28 goals, they conceded only two throughout the competition. The team beat rivals China and Japan to enter the 2010 World Cup and Oman and Saudi Arabia to win their place at the 2014 tournament. However, at the 2018 qualifiers, though they qualified via the playoffs, they were beaten by Japan and pipped to the post by Saudi in the qualifiers. The team will need to keep their wits about them to finish on top.
Saudi Arabia has made five appearances at the World Cup, their first in 1994 and last in 2018. The current team will be cause for concern to the Blues and the Socceroos; they are more than capable of snatching one of the top two spots from underneath their closest competitors' noses. Against Vietnam, China and Oman, Saudi should prevail, though China and Oman both have form for defeating the Green and Whites on a regional and continental level.
Oman and Vietnam will be looking for their debuts at the World Cup finals, whereas China will hope to make their first appearance since 2002. All three teams will have difficulty knocking the favourites to win off the top spots, but it is not impossible. Vietnam and China both reached the quarter-finals of the 2019 Asian Cup alongside Japan and Australia and in front of Saudi Arabia. The Omanis have won or drawn nine out of their last ten matches and finished only two points behind their Round Two 2022 qualifier Group leaders Qatar.
The Qatar National Team
As hosts of the 2022 World Cup, Qatar automatically qualified for the 2022 World Cup tournament. However, the national team joined the first two rounds of the Asian qualifiers to secure their place at the 2023 Asian Cup competition - the squad took the top spot in their qualifying group.
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