Asian 2022 World Cup Qualifiers Tournament Passes Halfway Mark
Matchday 5 of the third and final round of the AFC Asian 2022 World Cup qualifying tournament began with a head-to-head between the competitions’ and Asian football powerhouses Australia and Saudi Arabia. The match set the tone for the rest of the games that kicked off the November break. Each team involved battled ferociously to wrangle the most points possible from their opponents, or at least avoid conceding anything, as the competition hit the halfway mark.
Twelve teams - Australia, China, Iraq, Iran, Japan, Korea Republic, Lebanon, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Syria, the United Arab Emirates and Vietnam - are competing in the third and final round of the qualifying tournament. Those twelve, drawn into two groups of six, are playing in a round-robin of home and away games over ten matchdays to decide who will take their place at the 2022 competition. Only four, the top two from each group, will win direct tickets to the World Cup for their efforts when the qualifiers end in March 2022. The third-placed teams will face off to earn another chance to enter the World Cup competition via the intercontinental playoffs in June 2022.
So, after the opening day of the November window and with just five matches left to play each, let’s see who is gunning for victory and who has been left with a fight on their hands.
Matchday 5 - The Action
The results for Group A following the recent matchday are as follows:
|South Korea vs UAE||VenueGoyang Stadium, South Korea||Results1-0|
|Lebanon vs Iran||VenueSaida International Stadium, Lebanon||Results1-2|
|Iraq vs Syria||VenueThani bin Jassim Stadium, Doha, Qatar*||Results1-1|
South Korea hosted the United Arab Emirates in the first of Group A's November break matches. Undefeated in the competition to date, the Koreans were undoubtedly keen to maintain or close the gap between themselves and group leaders Iran with a win against the UAE. In their last three meetings with the Arab team, the Koreans have taken all three wins. However, the UAE also had everything to play for; a win would have lifted them into third place for a chance of qualification. On the day, the Taegeuk Warriors dominated the field and created the most opportunities to score. During the first half of the match, the Korean squad moved the field's length and breadth, testing the Arab defences and looking for chances. They hit the woodwork on three occasions and created various opportunities, but their first and only goal of the match was scored from a penalty in the 36th minute. Hwang Hee-chan thumped his shot past the UAE keeper, Ali Khasif, to open the scoring. During the second half, the UAE upped their pace but only managed to create one clear chance. South Korea took the three points for the match with just a single goal, remaining in second place. The UAE, after Iraq's draw with Syria, dropped down the table from third to fourth place.
Lebanon took on group leaders Iran - so far unbeaten in the tournament. Iran controlled from the start, testing Lebanon's defensive line, which proved relatively solid. Yet, against the run of play, Lebanon made a foray into the Iraqi half in the 37th minute, with forward Abbas Assi booting a very high cross towards the box. With the ball looking as though it would drop out of play, Iran's defences lowered. However, the ball was brought down by Soony Saad inside the box, which he then flicked into the back of the net. Iran entered the second half determined to come back from behind but, try as they might, Lebanon's defence was resolute. And, just when it looked as though Iran would face their first defeat, Iranian forward Sardar Azmoun booted home an equaliser in stoppage time. His goal was followed by another from Ahmad Nourollahi four minutes later, giving Iran a 2-1 lead and the full three points from the match. Iran remains out front on 13 points, while Lebanon holds onto third place by their fingernails on 5 points.
Wrapping up Group A's first matches of the break, Iraq hosted Syria in Doha, Qatar. Languishing in the bottom two places on the table, both teams will have been looking for a win. The match was slow to start, with neither team creating many chances. The closest shot came from Syrian Mohammad Anz, but the ball was just too wide of the goal. Eventually, Syria got the ball rolling in the 79th minute with the opening goal. A pass from Omar Khribin was slotted home past the Iraqi keeper, Fahad Talib, by Omar Al Somah. It would have been Syria's first win of this qualifying round, but a late penalty from a foul on Amir Ammari by Ahmed Ashkar gave Iraq the equaliser and a share of the points. Iraq moved into fourth place, just one point behind Lebanon, while Syria remained in last place, just one point behind the UAE.
At the end of the break, the standings for Group A stack up as follows:
|South Korea||Points11||Goal Difference3|
|United Arab Emirates||Points3||Goal Difference-2|
The results for Group B following the recent matchday are as follows:
|Australia vs Saudi Arabia||VenueWestern Sydney Stadium, Australia||Results0-0|
|Vietnam vs Japan||VenueMỹ Đình National Stadium, Vietnam||Results0-1|
|China vs Oman||VenueSharjah Stadium, UAE*||Results1-1|
Titans and board leaders Australia and Saudi Arabia kicked off Group B's November matches. The Aussies hosted their Arab counterparts in a rainswept stadium in Sydney, the teams first game on home soil for two years. It was always going to be a tough match between the two sides, both desperate to hold on to their top spots. And, despite numerous chances on both sides to score, neither could break the deadlock. They left the field sharing the points for the game after a goalless draw. Australia was the most proactive team in the first and early second half of the game, pressing hard and searching for a goal. The Saudis were content to defend. As a result, and despite numerous opportunities, the Socceroos couldn't find the back of the net. Mathew Leckie, Ajdin Hrustic, Jackson Irvine, Anwer Mabil and Martin Boyle all took aim but failed to convert. With their defensive play and some tactical time-wasting, Saudi looked to counter twenty minutes from the end of the match when fatigue had set in for the Aussies. The Green Falcons made three very plausible attacks on goal and were only stopped from scoring by the heroics of Australia's Mat Ryan. Leaving with just a point each, the teams remain in the pole positions for qualification. But, Australia will need to pull out all the stops for their next match to stay ahead of a rapidly rising Japan.
Vietnam played host to Japan during their first game of the international break. The hosts, while missing several key defenders due to injury, gave a spirited performance. The Vietnamese squad built on their previous defensive tactics to venture out offensively but sadly came away with nothing to show. Japan took the three points and moved from fourth to third place on the table with a win. Despite the home advantage, Vietnam was playing a much stronger opponent and struggled to create chances. However, the Golden Star Warriors' keeper Bui Tan Truong and the team's defensive line blocked the Japanese players repeatedly and kept the score to just 1-0. Japan's goal came from Junya Ito, who tapped in a pass from teammate Takumi Minamino. With another win under their belts, after three straight losses, Japan is clawing their way back to within touching distance of qualification.
The final Group B match on November 11th was between China and Oman. China hosted the Omanis in Sharjah in the UAE. Both teams would have been hoping to close the gaps between themselves and the teams above them in the standings, though China had the advantage of playing at home and having won four out of the last six games against Oman. Indeed, when China scored 21 minutes in, they looked like they were on for another victory. The goal came from a corner won by China's Zhu Chenjie, who nodded it down to star player Wu-Lei, who tapped it home. China tried to capitalise on their success with a stunningly powerful header from Aloisio, who won a short corner delivered by Alan Carvalho. However, a superb save from Omani keeper Faiz Al-Rushaidi kept the score as it was. The Dragons Wu-Lei also tried to head one home whilst undefended in the box but went wide to his dismay. The Omanis fought back valiantly, taking several on-target shots at the Chinese goal, but it wasn't until the 75th minute that they were rewarded with an equaliser and their share of the match points. With one point each, Oman sits in fourth place, two points behind Japan, and China sits in fourth on 4 points.
At the end of the break, the standings for Group B stack up as follows:
|Saudi Arabia||Points13||Goal Difference5|
Matchday 6 - November 16th
A further six games are to be held on November 16th, Matchday 6.
In Group A, Iran will take on Syria, who has had a tough competition to date with three losses and two draws from five matches, giving them just 2 points on the table. A win for the Iranians will further cement their position in the top spot. South Korea faces Iraq, which could be a challenge as the Iraqis held them to a goalless draw in their previous encounter with a stout defence. However, the Koreans need the win to maintain a secure footing in second place. And Lebanon will face off against the UEA. A victory for Lebanon, the group's minnows, would keep their playoff qualification dreams alive. In October, the squad worked their way into third place; they will need a victory to secure their tenuous hold into the new year.
Group B's Australia and China will go head to head on the 16th. Though, considering China's form in the competition to date, with just one win from five, the Socceroos should breeze through the challenge. The Australians need to collect the full points to stay ahead of Japan, just one point behind them. Saudi Arabia will face Vietnam and should take a comfortable win to cement their position in first. And, Oman will take on Japan. At their last meeting, Oman beat their rivals and one of Asia's best teams 1-0 and will be hoping for a similar result to leapfrog Japan into third place. However, Japan will be pulling out all of the stops to avoid the same humiliation twice.
In addition to the November matchdays, the tournament's final round will unfold over an additional two international breaks - in February and March 2022.
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