September 09, 2021

Opening Games of Asian World Cup Qualifiers Final Done and Dusted

The September international football window has ended for teams involved in the Asian 2022 World Cup qualifiers. The last week has seen the qualifiers tournament start a new chapter. The third and final round of what has been a long journey for the teams involved has begun. Twelve teams have been battling to stake their initial claims in the standings. The contest has been fierce and has, at times, been shocking. However, some sides have finished at the top of the table and are closer to their World Cup qualifying dreams. Some have entered the chart surprisingly higher than predicted, and some, sitting at or near the bottom of the standings, will have their work cut out over the next six months to improve their positions.

The Tournament

Australia, China, Iraq, Iran, Japan, Korea Republic, Lebanon, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Syria, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Vietnam secured their places in Round Three of the qualifiers, 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 when forty-six Asian teams fought for a place at the next World Cup tournament.

The final twelve, drawn into two groups of 6, will contest four places at the upcoming World Cup competition. The two top sides from each group will advance to fill the 2022 slots. The third-placed teams will face off for a chance to enter the competition via the intercontinental playoffs in June 2022.

The tournament's final round will unfold over five international windows - September, October and November '21 and February and March '22.

The Results

Twelve matches, six per group, were played over the recent international window - six on September 2nd and six on September 7th. The results and the standings are as follows for each group:

OpponentsSouth Korea vs IraqDate/VenueSeptember 2nd / Seoul World Cup Stadium, South KoreaResults0 - 0
OpponentsIran vs SyriaDate/VenueSeptember 2nd / Azadi Stadium, IranResults1 - 0
OpponentsUAE vs LebanonDate/VenueSeptember 2nd / Zabeel Stadium, UEAResults0 - 0
OpponentsSouth Korea vs LebanonDate/VenueSeptember 7th / Suwon World Cup Stadium, South KoreaResults1 - 0
OpponentsSyria vs UAEDate/VenueSeptember 7th / *King Abdullah II Stadium, JordanResults1 - 1
OpponentsIraq vs IranDate/VenueSeptember 7th / *Khalifa International Stadium, QatarResults0 - 3

At the end of the first window, the standings stack up as below:

TeamPointsGoal Difference
TeamIranPoints6Goal Difference4
TeamSouth KoreaPoints4Goal Difference1
TeamUnited Arab EmiratesPoints2Goal Difference0
TeamIraqPoints1Goal Difference-3
TeamLebanonPoints1Goal Difference-1
TeamSyriaPoints1Goal Difference-1
OpponentsJapan vs OmanDate/VenueSeptember 2nd / Suita City Stadium, JapanResults0 - 1
OpponentsAustralia vs ChinaDate/VenueSeptember 2nd / *Khalifa International Stadium, QatarResults3 - 0
OpponentsSaudi Arabia vs VietnamDate/VenueSeptember 2nd / King Saud University Stadium, Saudi ArabiaResults3 - 1
OpponentsVietnam vs AustraliaDate/VenueSeptember 7th / Mỹ Đình National Stadium, VietnamResults0 - 1
OpponentsChina vs JapanDate/VenueSeptember 7th / *Khalifa International Stadium, QatarResults0 - 1
OpponentsOman vs Saudi ArabiaDate/VenueSeptember 7th / Sultan Qaboos Stadium, OmanResults0 - 1

At the end of the first window, the standings stack up as below:

TeamPointsGoal Difference
TeamIranPoints6Goal Difference4
TeamSouth KoreaPoints4Goal Difference1
TeamUnited Arab EmiratesPoints2Goal Difference0
TeamIraqPoints1Goal Difference-3
TeamLebanonPoints1Goal Difference-1
TeamSyriaPoints1Goal Difference-1

*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.

Tournament Action

Group A:

Iran finished the September window top of Group A with the full six points after two straight wins. Their opening match of the tournament with Syria, an impressive opponent based on their performance in the qualifiers to date, saw the Iranians win the match's only goal. Alireza Jahanbakhsh hit the back of the net just before the game's hour mark to take the points. Up against historic rivals Iraq, the 3-0 result couldn't have been sweeter. While possession was relatively even between the two opponents, and Iraq's goalkeeper Fahad Talib was a stalwart behind the posts, Iran still managed to make three shots count. A superb header from Jahanbakhsh in the second minute of the game broke the deadlock, and goals from Mehdi Taremi and Ali Ghoilzadeh in the second half sealed the win for Team Melli. In October, Iran will meet with the UAE and closest rival in their group South Korea. The team will have to work hard to keep South Korea from its top spot.

South Korea sits in second place in Group A with four points. After a disappointing opening match against Iraq, which ended in a goalless draw after some stout defending by the Iraqis, South Korea managed to add three to their single point with a 1-0 win over Lebanon. Though the Koreans dominated the match against the Lebanese, the away side's goalkeeper was more than a match for the attacking side, repeatedly denying their first-class efforts. Going into the October window, the Korean team will be hoping to add two wins to their tally against Syria and their most formidable opponent Iran to position themselves first on the table.

The United Arab Emirates hold the third spot in the standings at the end of the September window. The Middle Eastern squad had a frustrating start to their competition as they were held to a goalless draw by Lebanon. Though the UAE were on the ball for most of the game and took aim at the goal almost three times more than their opponents, the Lebanese were unyielding. Against Syria, the match was more evenly contested. However, the 1-1 result following goals from the UAE's Ali Mabkhout in the first half and Syria's Mahmoud Al Baher in the second, both teams were awarded a single point only. The UAE will have to pull it out of the bag in their October matches against Iran and Iraq if they want to remain in contention for the top three spots.

While fourth on the table, Iraq gave a good showing throughout their matches against South Korea and Iraq. Their defensive strategy kept Asia's fourth top team and one of the favourites to win the group in check for the entire 90 minutes of their game. The Koreans struggled to break the Iraqis down despite almost 70% possession. Again, in their contest with Iran, Asia's second top squad, Iran's defence was admirable. Though they lost 3-0 to the Iranians, the team's goalkeeper Fahad Talib turned a shift repeatedly thwarting wave after wave of attacks - without which the goals against would have been much, much higher. Next up, Iraq will face Lebanon and the UAE. The Iraqis formidable defence may stump their opponents, but they will need to show some attacking quality to position themselves higher in the standings.

Lebanon ranked 98th in the world and up against Asia's top dogs, has proved a surprise during this phase of the competition so far. The Lebanese team held the UEA to a goalless draw in their first match. By far the more dominant side, the UAE struggled to crack The Cedars despite the odds - Lebanon were missing eight players from their squad due to COVID-19, including their first choice goalkeeper Mehdi Khalil. However, Mostafa Matar certainly filled Khalil's boots. Up against South Korea, the Lebanese keeper repeatedly prevented the Koreans from building on their 1-0 score. The Lebanese walked away with a respectable loss against tough opponents. In October, Lebanon faces Iraq and Syria. The battle for all three teams to move up the standings will undoubtedly be cut-throat.  

Syria had a less successful start to their campaign than many would have predicted. During the second round of the qualifiers, they were unbeaten for most of the competition, losing only to China during their final match. However, with a 1-0 loss to Iran and a 1-1 draw with the UAE, the Syrian team is sitting at the bottom of the standings. While their opponents didn't have an easy time during their contests against Syria, the Eagles will need to come out fighting in October (against South Korea and Lebanon) if they want to get off the bottom rung.

Group B:

In the first phase of the tournament's third round, Australia hit the ground running with two wins and the full six points in the bag. Despite a good start by the Chinese, the Socceroos dominated their opening match. The Australians scored twice in quick succession in the first half and hour of the game. Anwer Mabil and Martin Boyle's first-half goals made the rest of the contest an uphill battle for the Chinese. Mitchell Duke's second-half goal compounded that battle and ultimately ensured the Ozzies win. Up against Vietnam, the Australians were more stiffly challenged. They only managed one goal - a header two minutes from half-time courtesy of Rhyan Grant. The Vietnamese team's disciplined defence frustrated the Ozzies many times over. However, a single goal proved all that was needed to secure the win. The next phase of the contest sees Australia face-off against Oman and Asia's number one, Japan. The Socceroos will need to put up a stout defence against the Japanese to win the points, especially with Saudi Arabia sitting in second place on six points and with just one goal difference.

Saudi Arabia won their opening matches 3-1 against Vietnam and 1-0 over Oman, putting them just behind Australia on the table. Their victory over Vietnam may not have occurred had the Golden Star Warriors not had a man sent off just before half-time. The Vietnamese were already in the lead, having netted the ball 3 minutes into the match. However, the red card for Do Duy Manh seemed to galvanise the Saudis and ten minutes into the second half they scored from a penalty to equalise. Twelve minutes later, a header gave Saudi Arabia the lead, and another penalty ten minutes from the end sealed the deal. Against Oman, the Saudis had the lion's share of possession. Though Oman took more chances at goal, a superb team move in the 42nd minute gave Saudi Arabia the lead. Salman Al Faraj's pass to Fahad Al Muwallad was expertly heal-kicked to Saleh Al Shehris, who belted a precision shot to the back of the net. The wins will boost the Saudi squad's confidence in their next match against Japan, which they will need to maintain their top spot position.

Japan would undoubtedly have been disappointed with their opening performance against Oman. Ranked 79th in the FIFA rankings, Oman shocked many with their 1-0 win over the Japanese - ranked 24th in the world. The loss was Japan's first in the last nine qualifying matches in this tournament. The Omani squad was well organised; Japan struggled to create chances - unlike The Reds, who kept Japan's keeper busy. Japan fared better in their contest against China. The Samurai Blue were in command of the field for most of the game, with Yuya Osako netting the first and only goal in the 40th minute. However, if the Japanese want to rise to either of the top two spots, they will need to press home the advantage against Saudi and Australia in October.

Oman’s dream of reaching the World Cup for the first time drew a little closer when they defeated Japan on September 2nd. The team fought hard to contain the Japanese and, though on the ball for less time, they regularly challenged the opposition's goalkeeper. Their 88th-minute goal put them out in front just in time to steal the three points. Against Saudi Arabia, The Reds showed plenty of promise and kept the pressure on their rivals' goal, but again they couldn't keep possession in the face of the Saudi defence. Facing Australia and Vietnam next, the Omanis need to convert their chances to keep their World Cup dreams alive. 

Vietnam  took on tough opponents Saudi Arabia and Australia for their opening games. The Vietnamese, however, took the game to the Saudis in the opening minutes of their bout with a goal from Nguyen Quang Hai. The Falcons, though they held most possession and had most chances at goal, failed to equalise in the first half. However, after Vietnam went down to ten men, the Saudi team pounced on the advantage and took the game 3-1. Against Australia, Vietnam proved to be a challenge. The Golden Star Warriors were well organised and had a stout defensive line, and, despite the Socceroos playing most of the first forty-five in the Vietnamese half, they only managed a single goal in the 43rd minute. Vietnam pushed forward in the second half but failed to find an equaliser. Taking on China and Oman, Vietnam will be working hard to beat their rivals into fourth place.

China sits at the bottom of the table after losing to Australia and Japan. Despite a promising start against the Socceroos, China struggled to break into their rivals' half. Against Japan, the match followed a similar pattern. The Japanese dominated the game, pushing The Dragons into their half and continuously harassing the Chinese keeper. China will need to press forward out of their own half and create chances in their upcoming matches with Vietnam and Saudi to stay in contention.

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Published: September 09, 2021
Last updated: September 09, 2021
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