One Week In At The Resumed Asian 2022 World Cup Qualifiers
The Asian qualifiers for the 2022 FIFA World Cup were resumed again on June 3rd 2021, after almost an entire year and a half break. Round One of the tournament began in June 2019; the current round, Round Two, kicked off in September 2019 and continued into the October and November windows of that year. In 2020, just one match (Qatar vs Bangladesh) was played and in early 2021, just five games were completed; COVID-19 and the many global restrictions resulting from the pandemic put paid to the competitions planned schedule. However, determined to complete the second round of the tournament by June 15th to enable Round Three to begin in the September 2021 window, the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) refashioned the competition format to allow the last four Round Two matchdays to go ahead. The original home-and-away format of the tournament was abandoned. Instead, centralised hubs, one for each of the eight competing groups (A-H), were set up. The hub format allows teams to travel to just one location for all matches (hub hosts also provide quarantine exemption for participating teams, only requiring appropriate Covid-19 testing to enter the country). With two matchdays completed and only two to go, the new format has been a success. The final group standings, whose winners will advance to Round Three of the World Cup qualifiers and gain direct entry to the 2023 Asian Cup tournament, are becoming increasingly apparent.
Syria (Group A), Australia (Group B), Qatar (Group E), Japan (Group F) and South Korea (Group H) are out and out winners of their groups. They have already secured their places at the next World Cup qualifying round and the 2023 Asian Cup - the first two rounds of the competition doubles as qualifiers for both. Group C, Group D and Group G’s top teams will be decided during the next two matchdays - June 11th and June 15th. However, there is more to play for than just the top spots. It is not only the group winners advancing, but the four best runners-up across all eight groups will also proceed to the next stage of the qualifiers and directly to the Asian Cup tournament. For indirect qualification to the Asian Cup, the next sixteen highest-ranked teams from Round Two play in a separate final round, alongside an additional eight squads decided via playoffs between the last placed teams, to determine a further twelve teams for the Asian Cup. So, for every team, there is all to play for...
For now, let’s take a look at the current group standings and analyse the team’s positions to date:
With a game in hand, Syria has secured its position as group winner with 21 points over seven unbeaten games. Conceding only four goals across the second round and with a goal difference of seventeen, the Syrian team has run a tight ship during the competition. The squad will be hoping their fortunes continue into Round Three and up against some of Asia's greatest teams to allow them to qualify for the World Cup for the first time. Syria has yet to reach the World Cup finals though they did make the fourth qualification round in 2018.
Syria 21 points with a goal difference of 17, 7 games won from 7
PR China 13 points with a goal difference of 20, 4 games won from 6
Philippines 7 points with a goal difference of -2, 2 games won from 6
Maldives 6 points with a goal difference of -8, 2 games won from 6
Guam 0 points with a goal difference of -27, 0 games won from 7
Prior to the last two matchdays, the Chinese team, whose hopes of topping Group A were dashed by Syria's unbeaten run, needed to win their next match with the Philippines (June 7th). A win would secure their position in second place and increase their chances of qualifying for the next stage of the World Cup qualifiers. With a 2-0 win over the Philippines, the Chinese squad's wishes were granted. For the Philippines to displace China, they would need to win both their games against Guam (June 11th) and the Maldives (June 15th), and for China to lose out to both the Maldives (June 11th) and Syria (June 15th). It's a long shot, but regardless of their final position, second or third place, the squad from the Philippines has done enough to advance to the final qualifying round of the Asian Cup. The Maldives still has a chance, as fourth-placed best runner up, to make it to the Asian Cup qualifiers, but Guam must enter the playoffs for another opportunity.
Asian powerhouse Australia has, with an unbeaten record across Round Two, secured its place at the top of the standings with 18 points - five points clear of Jordan in second place. A much improved 21st century Australian team will head to the third round of the World Cup qualifiers - and be hoping to qualify for the sixth time in their history - and the Asian Cup - where they were last Champions in 2015.
Australia 18 points with a goal difference of 22, 6 games won from 6
Jordan 13 points with a goal difference of 11, 4 games won from 6
Kuwait 10 points with a goal difference of 11, 3 games won from 6
Nepal 6 points with a goal difference of -15, 2 games won from 7
Chinese Taipei 0 points with a goal difference of -29, 0 games won from 7
Before taking on the Australians on June 3rd, the Kuwaitis were on 10 points alongside Jordan. With their home advantage and four 2021 successful international friendlies under their belts, the team would have been hoping to break the Socceroos unbeaten run and take second place in the table. However, a 3-0 defeat, and a 3-0 win for Jordan over Nepal on June 7th, saw Kuwait finish in third place. Jordan now stands the best chance of qualifying for the next stage of the World Cup qualifiers and the Asian Cup as best runner-up. The only hope for the Group B tournament hosts, Kuwait, to reach second place is for a win against Jordan on the 11th and Australia to defeat the Jordanians on the 15th. Nepal still has a chance, if they make fourth-placed best runner up, to make it to the Asian Cup qualifiers, but Chinese Taipei must enter the playoffs for another opportunity.
Group C's overall winner has yet to be decided. The groups top three are the closest in contention across the eight groups. Host Bahrain sits in third place on 12 points, Iran in second also on 12 points, and Iraq in first-place and only two points ahead of its rivals on 14 points - though both Iraq and Iran each have a game in hand.
Iraq 14 points with a goal difference of 10, 4 games won from 6
IR Iran 12 points with a goal difference of 19, 4 games won from 6
Bahrain 12 points with a goal difference of 7, 3 games won from 7
Hong Kong 5 points with a goal difference of -4, 1 game won from 6
Cambodia 1 points with a goal difference of -32, 0 games won from 7
The standings preceding the last two matchdays saw Iran in third place on 6 points only, but with a game in hand. Bahrain sat closely behind Iraq on 9 points to 11. However, Iran's 3-1 win over Hong Kong on June 3rd and its 3-0 defeat of Bahrain on June 7th moved the team into second place with a whopping goal difference of 19 to Bahrain's 7. Bahrain's squad, following their 8-0 win over Cambodia on the 3rd, would have been hoping to secure second place against Iran. However, the defeat means that the race for the top spot is now between Iran and Iraq. Bahrain will have to settle for third place and entry into the final qualifying round of the Asian Cup. Iran can leapfrog Iraq with a win against their rivals on June 15th and Cambodia on June 11th. Iraq needs to triumph against Iran and Hong Kong (June 11th) to stay on top. If they make fourth-placed best runner up, Hong Kong still has a chance to make it to the Asian Cup qualifiers, but Cambodia must enter the playoffs for another opportunity.
Group D's top spot is still in the reckoning between Saudi Arabia, in first place with 14 points, and Uzbekistan, in second place with 2 points less. The Falcons have qualified for the World Cup on five occasions since 1994; the Uzbekis have never been to the World Cup though they have qualified for every Asian Cup since 1996 and are considered Central Asia's best team.
Saudi Arabia 14 points with a goal difference of 12, 4 games won from 6
Uzbekistan 12 points with a goal difference of 11, 4 games won from 6
Palestine 7 points with a goal difference of -3, 2 games won from 7
Singapore 7 points with a goal difference of -12, 2 games won from 7
Yemen 3 points with a goal difference of -8, 1 game won from 6
Hosts of the Group D tournament, Saudi Arabia, opened the resumed competition in Riyadh with a 3-0 victory over Yemen. Uzbekistan cemented its position in second place and added pressure on Saudi's top spot, with a resounding 5-0 win against Singapore. Palestine improved its overall position from fourth to third with a very decent 4-0 win against rival for third place, Singapore. The last two matchdays will be a race to the top between Saudi and Uzbekistan - if both teams win their next matches against Singapore and Yemen, respectively, on June 11th, then the decider will be a face-off between the two on June 15th. The race for third place will continue between Palestine and Singapore, though against Saudi, the Singaporean team will have their work cut out to advance the table further. Yemen must enter the playoffs for another chance at the Asian Cup.
Qatar, who has completed all its matches for Round Two, are outright group winners. And, while the Al Annabi Boys have secured their place at the Asian Cup, the rest of Group E's teams must complete their final Round Two games in Doha. So the next few matchdays will determine who is heading to the third World Cup qualifying round (Oman) or how they will get to the Asian Cup - directly or via the final qualifying round.
Qatar 22 points with a goal difference of 17, 7 games won from 8
Oman 12 points with a goal difference of 6, 4 games won from 6
India 6 points with a goal difference of -1, 1 game won from 7
Afghanistan 5 points with a goal difference of -9, 1 game won from 6
Bangladesh 2 points with a goal difference of -13, 0 games won from 7
Oman will be hoping to beat Afghanistan and Bangladesh to secure their chances of advancing to Round Three of the World Cup qualifiers and either a direct place at the Asian Cup or the final round. (As Qatar have already qualified for the World Cup, Oman still have a chance to enter Round Three of the 2022 qualifiers as best runner-up - depending on their final Round Two position). Having beaten Bangladesh on June 7th, India now sits in third place on 6 points. They will be hoping for a win against Afghanistan on June 15th to secure their chances of competing in the final round of the Asian Cup qualifiers. However, Afghanistan has a game in hand and could leapfrog India if they beat Oman on June 11th. Bangladesh are in 5th place and, unless they beat Oman on June 15th and Afghanistan fail to win either of their upcoming matches, are more likely to enter the playoffs for a place in the final round of the 2023 qualifiers.
Though still with a game in hand, Japan is in an unassailable position at the top of Group F. The group tournament hosts have won all seven of their matches to date and have 21 points in their pockets with a goal difference of 40. The Samurai Blue have conceded only one goal throughout Round Two in their last 4-1 match against Tajikistan. In the second round of the qualifiers, no other team has such a strong record. If the Japanese team qualifies for the World Cup through the third round of the Asian tournament, it will be their seventh World Cup since 1998.
Japan 21 points with a goal difference of 40, 7 games won from 7
Tajikistan 10 points with a goal difference of -2, 3 games won from 7
Kyrgyzstan 7 points with a goal difference of 4, 2 games won from 6
Myanmar 6 points with a goal difference of -18, 2 games won from 6
Mongolia 6 points with a goal difference of -24, 2 games won from 8
Going into the last two matchdays, Kyrgyzstan would have been hoping to win against last-placed Mongolia to take their spot in second place above Tajikistan. However, Mongolia took the game 1-0 on June 7th and left Kyrgyzstan in third place 3 points behind closest rivals, the Tajiks. The final two matches will see the race for second place continue. Kyrgyzstan needs to beat Myanmar (June 11th) and Japan (June 15th) to catch Tajikistan, who also have a game lined up against Myanmar on the 15th. If they make fourth-placed best runner up, Myanmar still has a chance to make it to the Asian Cup qualifiers, but Mongolia must enter the playoffs for another opportunity.
In another closely contested group, Vietnam is currently sitting at the top of the table on 14 points. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) is close behind on 12 points and Thailand and Malaysia in third and fourth place, respectively, on 9 points each. While one of Southeast Asia's most successful teams, Vietnam has yet to qualify for the World Cup. The UAE has qualified just once in 1990. Both teams have had success at the Asian Cup, though neither has won the competition to date. The race for the number one spot and qualification to the upcoming tournaments will be fierce. The UAE can only take the number one spot if they beat Vietnam on June 15th.
Vietnam 14 points with a goal difference of 8, 4 games won from 6
UAE 12 points with a goal difference of 10, 4 games won from 6
Thailand 9 points with a goal difference of 1, 2 games won from 7
Malaysia 0 points with a goal difference of -2, 3 games won from 6
Indonesia 1 points with a goal difference of -24, 0 games won from 7
Heading into the recent two matchdays, Vietnam was leading the table, closely followed by Malaysia, who had surprised many with their triumphs over Thailand and Indonesia in 2019. However, following a 4-0 loss to the UAE on June 3rd, and the UAE's second 3-1 win against Thailand on June 7th, Malaysia dropped to fourth place. Thailand's surprise draw against Indonesia meant the Thais stayed in third place. The upcoming matches on June 11th and 15th will decide which team, Malaysia or Thailand, take third place and an automatic pass to the final round of the Asian Cup qualifiers. Thailand and Malaysia will go head-to-head on the 15th, and depending on Malaysia's game against Vietnam on June 11th, the result could be nail-biting. Anything but a win against Vietnam and Thailand would mean fourth place for Malaysia. Indonesia must enter the playoffs for another chance at the Asian Cup.
Since the withdrawal of North Korea from the games, the rest of Group H will only record six games each with their results against the North Koreans declared null and void. Hosts, South Korea, are on to win the group. The Taegeuk Warriors have made the World Cup on nine consecutive occasions since 1986 and made it to fourth place in 2002.
South Korea 13 points with a goal difference of 20, 5 games won from 6
Lebanon 10 points with a goal difference of 4, 5 games won from 6
Turkmenistan 9 points with a goal difference of -3, 6 games won from 6
Sri Lanka 0 points with a goal difference of -21, 6 games won from 6
On 13 points to Lebanon's 10 points, even if the June 13th head-to-head between the two goes all Lebanon's way, the South Korean's are so far ahead on goal difference (20) that they will win the tournament anyway. Lebanon will, nonetheless, qualify for the final round of the Asian Cup. If they make fourth-placed best runner up, Turkmenistan still has a chance to make it to the Asian Cup qualifiers, but Sri Lanka must enter the playoffs for another opportunity.
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