Asian 2022 World Cup Qualifiers Wrapped Up for 2021
The sixth matchday of the third and final round of the AFC Asian 2022 World Cup qualifying competition is all sewn up. Only four matchdays remain, and they won’t be played until the new year. And, as 2021 draws to a close and qualification to the 2022 tournament comes within striking distance, the mist is clearing on who looks likely to succeed.
Two groups of six teams are competing for just 4.5 places at the upcoming World Cup. Only the top two teams from each group will advance directly to the tournament, while the third-placed sides will head to a series of playoffs for a last chance at scoring a ticket to Qatar.
So, after the closing day of the November window and with just four matches left to play each, who from Group A’s contestants - Iraq, Iran, Korea Republic, Lebanon, Syria and the United Arab Emirates - and Group B’s squads - Australia, China, Japan, Oman, Saudi Arabia and Vietnam - are close to booking their places at the tournament?
Matchday 6 - The Action
The results for Group A following the recent matchday are as follows:
|Lebanon vs UAE||VenueSaida International Stadium, Lebanon||Results0 - 1|
|Iraq vs South Korea||VenueThani bin Jassim Stadium, Doha, Qatar*||Results0 - 3|
|Syria vs Iran||VenueKing Abdullah International Stadium, Saudi Arabia*||Results0 - 3|
Unbeaten in the tournament, Iran ended the November break with a convincing 3-0 win over last-placed Syria. Sardar Azmoun opened the scoring for the Iranians with a strike in the 33rd minute, and Ehsan Hajsafi doubled the lead with a penalty shot before the break. The icing on the cake came from Ali Gholizadeh in the 81st, with a run past several defenders into the penalty area and a powerful finish to the back of the net. Iran now sits on 16 points, ahead of second-placed South Korea by two points.
South Korea also had a positive run over the November window. The Koreans started with a 1-0 win over the UEA and ended with an easy 3-0 victory over Iraq. Against the Iraqis in Doha, the Koreans' Lee Jae-sung kicked off the scoring just before the interval, with the second and third goals hitting home towards the end of the second half. Son Heung-min struck home with a penalty in the 74th, and Jeong Woo-yeong rounded up with a goal in the 79th. On 14 points and in second place, South Korea are eight points clear of the UEA in third.
After the loss to South Korea on the 11th, the UEA improved its standing with a 1-0 win over Lebanon. The 85th-minute penalty shot from Ali Mabkhout, in a hard-fought match, tipped the balance in the UEA's favour, and they leapfrogged Lebanon into third place with 6 points. The win was the UAE's first in the third round. Lebanon will rue the foul on Sebastian Tagliabue that saw the UAE's winning penalty awarded. The squad dropped out of the playoff-qualification position and into fourth, a point behind the UAE.
With a draw against one another on the 11th and a loss each to end the November break, Iraq and Syria sit in fifth and last place, respectively.
At the end of the break, the standings for Group A stack up as follows:
|South Korea||Points14||Goal Difference6|
|United Arab Emirates||Points6||Goal Difference-1|
The results for Group B following the recent matchday are as follows:
|Vietnam vs Saudi Arabia||VenueMỹ Đình National Stadium, Vietnam||Results0 - 1|
|China vs Australia||VenueSharjah Stadium, UAE*||Results1 - 1|
|Oman vs Japan||VenueSultan Qaboos Sports Complex, Oman||Results0 - 1|
Saudi Arabia continued their unbeaten run in the last match of the November break. Away to Vietnam, The Green Falcons only managed a single goal against their rivals, but it was enough to take the three points and strengthen their position at the top of the table. The headed cross from Saleh Al-Shehri in the 31st minute of the game followed a dominant start by the Saudis, who put pressure on the Vietnamese from the get-go. However, the Arab squad was denied a series of chances throughout the game and could not break through to a higher score. Nonetheless, Saudi now sits on 16 points - four points clear of their nearest rivals Japan.
Japan, who have made a remarkable recovery from their slow start to the competition, ended the window in second place after wins against Vietnam and, more recently, Oman. The 1-0 win over Oman would undoubtedly have been cathartic for the Japanese squad after the Omanis unexpectedly beat them in the tournament's opening match. The match against The Reds was a hard-fought win, but the Blue Samurai dug in and took the victory with a late strike from Junya Ito.
Australia’s hopes of World Cup qualification took a beating this November break. Having lost to Japan in October and drawn 0-0 with Saudi at the beginning of the current window, the Aussies needed a win against China to secure their position in second place and ensure the gap between them and front runners Saudi didn't widen any further. However, on the final matchday of the year, they were held to a 1-1 draw with China. After scoring the opener with a header from Duke Mitchell in the 38th and dominating most of the match, the Socceroos must have thought their wishes would be granted. However, a controversial penalty awarded to China towards the end of the second half blew their lead out of the water. Wu Lei took the penalty and struck home with precision meaning the teams had to share the spoils, one point each. Australia slid down the table from second to third on 11 points, five behind Saudi Arabia.
Oman, following their loss to Japan, remained in fourth place on 7 points. China’s draw against Australia maintained their spot in fifth with 5 points. And Vietnam, despite improvements in their offensive game, stayed in last place still to collect any points.
At the end of the break, the standings for Group B stack up as follows:
|Saudi Arabia||Points16||Goal Difference6|
The tournament's final round will unfold over two additional international breaks in January/February and March 2022.
Group A's group leaders Iran will take on Iraq and the UAE in January and South Korea and Lebanon in March. To maintain their slim lead, they will need to hope for more wins than draws but, considering their only draw across the third round was against South Korea, they stand a good chance of booking their place in Qatar. South Korea will undoubtedly be looking for a win over Iran in the hope that they can leapfrog them into first place but, as long as they maintain their winning form in matches against Lebanon, Syria and the UAE, regardless of their score against Iran, they should easily qualify for the World Cup in second. The real contest will be for third place and a chance to enter the intercontinental playoffs in June 2022. The UEA, Lebanon and Iraq are all in close contention and will have to fight tooth and nail to secure third.
In Group B, top dogs Saudi Arabia must protect their position against Oman and Japan in January and China and Australia in March. Any losses of draws, especially against Japan or Australia, would weaken their hold on the top rung. Japan will face China, Saudi Arabia, Australia and Vietnam. The Japanese will need to record a win over the Saudis if they stand any chance of closing the gap between themselves and the group leader. Though, considering the upward trajectory of their tournament to date, it is not an unreasonable expectation. Australia has an upward battle on their hands if they want to qualify directly. The Socceroos are only one point behind Japan, but their confidence has taken a battering over the last three games. Fortunately, the Australians face slightly less demanding opponents for their first matches of 2022. Against Vietnam and Oman, the Assies stand a good chance of winning their games and boosting their confidence at the same time before facing Japan and Saudi Arabia in March. Oman still has a chance of a playoff place, but like China and Vietnam, they may have to consign themselves to just trying to end the tournament on a high.
New Zealand routed the Solomon Islands in the final of the Oceania qualifiers to reach the World Cup playoffs and for a chance to be at the 2022 tournament.
In Asia's final qualifier games, the UAE and Australia won their spots in a sudden-death match against one another for a chance at the inter-confederation playoffs.
A football milestone is on the horizon in Qatar. The 50th Amir Cup Final will kick-off at World Cup venue, Khalifa International Stadium, in just ten days.
Located along a beachfront promenade, in a traditional Qatari souq, the England National Team have requested Al Wakra for their Team Base Camp during the World Cup.