SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — Asia could confirm its first participants in the World Cup — along with host Qatar — on Thursday with Iran and South Korea both within reach of securing their places.
Iran is on top of Group A with 16 points from six games with South Korea two points behind in the second of the two automatic qualification spots, eight ahead of United Arab Emirates (UAE) in third.
Only the top two are guaranteed a place at the World Cup that kicks off in November.
If the UAE fails to defeat Syria in Dubai then South Korea will secure a 10th successive appearance if it defeats Lebanon in Sidon. Lebanon has collected just five points from six games.
South Korea, a 2002 semifinalist, has been warming up for the game — and next Tuesday’s match with Syria — with a training camp in Turkey. Preparations have gone well with a 5-1 win over Iceland on Jan. 15 and a 4-0 victory against Moldova on Friday.
“The results and the performances were good,” said South Korea coach Paulo Bento, who has been unable to call star forwards Son Heung-min and Hwang Hee-chan. They have picked up injuries playing for their respective English Premier League clubs Tottenham Hotspur and Wolverhampton Wanderers.
Iran is even closer to a third successive World Cup appearance and a sixth overall — a win against Iraq in Tehran will be enough. Coach Dragan Skocic has recalled Mehdi Taremi to the squad after previously omitting the FC Porto striker for critical comments made in an interview.
“I have high expectations, he’s a great player. I’m glad we resolved the disagreement by talking. We have all the best interests of the national team in mind.” Skocic said.
The race for the top two spots is more open in Group B. Saudi Arabia is four points clear of Japan and five ahead of Australia and can take a step closer to a sixth World Cup with a win over Oman in Jeddah.
Australia has appeared at every World Cup since joining the Asian Football Confederation in 2006 and needs to defeat Vietnam, a team that has lost all six games so far in this round of qualification, to stay in touch. Coach Graham Arnold will not be present on the sidelines in Melbourne as the Socceroos coach has contracted COVID-19.
“We have four games that we have to play between now and qualifying for Qatar and I expect to win four games,” Arnold said. “We are here today, where we have everything in our own hands.”
Japan also needs to take three points at home to China ahead of Tuesday’s crunch meeting with Saudi Arabia. The Samurai Blue is just about on course for a seventh successive World Cup spot but will be without Kyogo Furuhashi. The Celtic striker has been in fine form in Scotland but has been struggling for fitness.
“We don’t know the details about his injury,” said Japan coach Hajime Moriyasu. “But because it’s at the level where we were concerned about whether he’d be able to contribute to the team we decided not to call him up this time.”
The trip to Japan is the first game in charge for Li Xiaopeng, who was appointed as China coach in November, taking over from Li Tie. With just one win in six games, China’s hopes of returning to the World Cup for the first time since its 2002 debut are virtually over, although the team can start preparation for the 2023 Asian Cup, which it will host.
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