October Window For Asia's 2022 Qualifiers All Wrapped Up
Following the first of the October break matchdays (Matchday 3), the standings were little changed. Iran still dominated Group A, closely followed by South Korea. The United Arab Emirates (UAE), Lebanon and Iraq were all still vying for third place. Meanwhile, Syria still languished at the bottom of the table. In Group B, Australia continued their unbroken record to maintain first place, closely followed by Saudi Arabia. Japan, one of Asia's finest but showing poor performance in the opening stages, finally managed to move up to third position at the expense of Oman, who moved down to fourth. China and Vietnam remained at the bottom of the pool despite changing places with one another. However, following the second matchday of the window (Matchday 4), Lebanon, a contender for third place, broke away from the pack in Group A. And, in Group B, the contest's shining star Australia fell from first place, conceding pole position to Saudi Arabia. At the same time, Oman leapfrogged Japan back into third place. With only limited spots at the FIFA 2022 World Cup to play for, the results from Matchday 4 will be welcome news to some but a wake-up call for others.
The Asian Football Confederation’s qualifying competition began with forty-six teams contesting just 4.5 places at the 2022 World Cup. Rounds One and Two reduced the number to twelve - Australia, China, Iraq, Iran, Japan, Korea Republic, Lebanon, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Syria, the United Arab Emirates and Vietnam - who are now competing in the third and final round.
Round Three, which began in September with Matchdays 1 and 2, will run into 2022 over the November 2021, January and March 2022 windows. Within ten matchdays, the remaining twelve squads, drawn into two groups of six, are playing in a round-robin of home and away games to decide who will take their place at the 2022 tournament. The top two teams from each group (A&B) will qualify for the 2022 competition. The third-placed teams will face off to earn another chance to enter the World Cup competition via the intercontinental playoffs in June 2022.
With four matchdays played and just six remaining, who played well on Matchday 4 and who were left wanting?
Matchday 4 - The Action
The results for Group A following the recent matchday are as follows:
|OpponentsIran vs South Korea||VenueAzadi Stadium, Tehran, Iran||Results1 - 1|
|OpponentsSyria vs Lebanon||Venue*King Abdullah Sports City Stadium, Saudi Arabia||Results2 - 3|
|OpponentsUAE vs Iraq||VenueZabeel Stadium, UEA||Results2 - 2|
Having won all three of their last Round Three matches and riding on the back of a ten-match winning streak, Iran was favourite to win the encounter with South Korea. Three points would have extended the current group leaders' position to five points above the Korean's, their nearest rivals. However, Team Melli had to settle for a single point after their 1-1 draw with the Taegeuk Warriors. On the day, South Korea's Son Heung-min opened the scoring in the early minutes of the second round. The South Koreans fought to stay on top, but a 76th-minute header from Iran's Alireza Jahanbakhsh levelled the score. The Warriors may have ended Iran's winning streak, but the Iranians still sit in first place on 10 points. South Korea is in second place with 8 points.
Syria lost 2-3 at home to Lebanon in a frustrating match for the hosts. Having lost all three of the final round matches so far, Syria would have hoped to improve their standing with a win or at least a draw against the Lebanese. However, despite an early lead from the Syrian's, a brace from Lebanon's Mohamed Jalal Kdouh in the first half's stoppage time, and a further goal in the 58th put paid to Syria's hopes. Even Syria's Omar Al Somah finding the back of the net in the 64th minute and closing the gap didn't help in the long run. The Syrian's couldn't convert any further chances leaving them at the bottom of the standings on just 1 point. Lebanon's victory, their first after two draws and a loss, saw them leapfrog the UAE into third place on the table with 5 points.
The UEA and Iraq also ended the October break with a draw. The 2-2 result was only decided in stoppage time when a late strike by the UAE's Ali Mabkhout levelled the scoreboard. While the UAE opened the scoring in the first half, an own goal by The Whites in the second half gave Iraq a fighting chance. The Lions took the advantage and scored in the dying minutes of the game to take the lead. However, Mabkhout's goal in injury time meant Iraq had to share the spoils. The result, and Lebanon's defeat of Syria, means that the race for third place and a chance to enter the playoffs has become more challenging. Lebanon, the UAE and Iraq all sat on 2 points going into the October window, separated only by goal differences. Now, Lebanon is two points ahead. The UEA and Iraq both sit on three points in fourth and fifth place, respectively.
At the end of the break, the standings for Group A stack up as follows:
|TeamSouth Korea||Points8||Goal Difference2|
|TeamUnited Arab Emirates||Points3||Goal Difference-1|
The results for Group B following the recent matchday are as follows:
|OpponentsJapan vs Australia||VenueSaitama Stadium, Japan||Results2 - 1|
|OpponentsOman vs Vietnam||VenueSultan Qaboos Sports Complex, Oman||Results3 - 1|
|OpponentsSaudi Arabia vs China||VenueKing Abdullah Sports City Stadium, Saudi Arabia||Results3 - 2|
Japan took a 2-1 win in their match against Australia. Having had a poor start to the competition, Asia's top-rated team were six points behind the group leaders (Australia and Saudi Arabia) alongside Oman and China. The Samurai Blue's victory over Australia shattered the Aussies eleven-game winning streak and 100% record in the third round and blew Group B's race wide open. The Socceroos had positioned themselves firmly at the top of the leaderboard, but the unexpected loss saw them drop two points below Saudi Arabia and into second place. The Saudi's, trailing Australia on goal difference since Matchday 1, finally claimed the top spot after their win against China. Japan, and Oman after their defeat of Vietnam, both moved within three points of Australia, reviving both teams hopes of direct qualification. On the day, Japan opened the scoring early with a shot to the back of the net from striker Ao Tanaka in the 8th minute. Australia struggled to convert their chances against Japan's solid defence, but in the 70th minute, Ajdin Hrustic slotted in a stunning free-kick. However, the Socceroos' joy didn't last long; an own goal from Hrustic in the 86th ended the team's dream run.
Facing Vietnam, Oman pulled out all the stops and conquered their rivals 3-1. Vietnam opened the scoring in the last six minutes of the first half. The goal seemed to jolt Oman into action, and they rallied to level the scoring in extra time. The Reds started the second half of the game as they finished the first, a flurry of action ending in a goal from a corner just four minutes in. A third goal from a penalty in the 63rd minute won the game for Oman. The win moved the Omanis into third place above Japan in fourth on a goal difference. Vietnam, not for lack of effort, ended the break in last place on zero points.
Saudi Arabia’s head-to-head with China ended in a 3-2 win maintaining the team's perfect Round Three record to date. Saudi's Sammi Al-Najei's brace from goals in the 15th and 38th minutes gave The Green Falcons the lead. China, seemingly lacking in confidence in the first 45 minutes, struggled to gain any ground. It wasn't until the second half, with a change in formation, two subbed strikers and what seemed like a loss of concentration in the Saudi squad, that The Dragons gave chase. One minute into the second half Chinese striker Aloísio sent one to the back of the net. Saudi gained another in the 72nd minute, keeping the two-goal lead. China fought to catch the host, but even their late 87th-minute effort wasn't enough. Saudi ended the window in first place on 12 points, and China stayed in fifth on 3 points.
At the end of the break, the standings for Group B stack up as follows:
|TeamSaudi Arabia||Points9||Goal Difference4|
*Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the necessary travel restrictions imposed by some governments, and the security issues faced by some host nations, some matches are being played in neutral venues.
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