RIYADH: Thursday is a big day for Saudi Arabia and for Asian football. In the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur, the 12 teams that came through the second round of qualification for the 2022 World Cup will be divided into two groups of six.
The top two of each will go to Qatar. The first of the 10 qualifying matches are set to start in September and end in March, but it remains to be seen whether the schedule will go ahead as planned due to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic and its associated international travel restrictions.
Assuming it does, and the groups are played in the traditional home and away format, the big question is what teams Saudi Arabia would want to meet and which are best avoided?
At Euro 2020, much store has been placed on who will meet who. As Saudi Arabia coach Herve Renard will know, the French were happy to play Switzerland in the second round, but it did not work out as planned. Even so, there will be some opponents welcomed more than others for all of the 12, with fans in Riyadh no different.
The important information for supporters of the Green Falcons is that they are in the third pot, meaning that the only team that cannot be met is fellow tier three member the UAE. All the other 10 teams are possible opponents.
Here are the potential opponents Renard, his players, and Saudi fans will look out for in the draw.
Pot 1: Iran or Japan
The preferable top seed has to be Iran rather than Japan. A trip to Tehran is always a tough one but at least travel is not an issue, and while Team Melli won four games out of four in the second half of the second round, the opposition was not the strongest and the performances, while better than earlier in the group, were not the best.
Iran has some excellent players such as Mehdi Taremi and Sardar Azmoun, but questions still remain as to whether coach Dragan Skocic is the right man to get the best out of them.
The formidable Japan, meanwhile, are best avoided. At the moment, the Samurai Blue are clearly the top team in Asia with huge strength in depth and, as shown in recent qualifiers, capable of fielding a squad made up solely of European-based players.
It will be a big task for Saudi Arabia to get anything from a trip to Tokyo, Saitama, or Osaka. Even playing Japan at home would be a tricky task.
Pot 2: Australia or South Korea
And then it is a second-seed choice between Australia and South Korea, and this is a more difficult one with the former Oceania team just shading it as a preferable pick.
Saudi Arabia has struggled in the past to handle the Socceroos’ physicality and aggression, winning only one of eight meetings, and that was back in 1997.
On the face of it, Australia breezed through the second round with eight wins out of eight, but they often looked predictable and were not tested much. The increasing speed that Renard is getting his men to play at could cause Australia problems.
The record against the Koreans is more mixed but it should be remembered that the east Asians always qualify, and it was 1982 when they last failed to make the global stage.
The Taeguk Warriors did not impress in the second round of qualification but there is room for improvement if coach Paulo Bento can get his act together. Should the Portuguese boss get the best out of Son Heung-min – who has struggled to replicate his club form for his country – and other European-based stars such as Hwang Hee-chan, Lee Jae-sung, and Hwang Ui-jo, then Korea will be formidable and best avoided.
Pot 4: Iraq or China
Heading down to pot number four, the one just below Saudi Arabia’s, surely Iraq would be a preferable option to China.
The Lions of Mesopotamia have been in good form in recent months and have become hard to beat under coach Srecko Katanec, but they are a familiar foe and perhaps lacking a little penetration in attack.
Not being able to play qualifying matches at home obviously makes it more difficult for the 2007 Asian champions and easier for visitors.
A trip to an improving China would be more difficult. Team Dragon may have underachieved in the past, but things are slowly changing. The powers that be are so desperate to reach a second World Cup that the domestic program will be suspended well in advance of any games.
At home, China would probably arrange a game in a relatively hard to reach city at altitude, such as Kunming, with a big and passionate crowd camped outside visitor hotels all night. Throw in a number of naturalized Brazilian stars and a coach who seems settled, and China will be a harder nut to crack than usual.
Pot 5: Syria or Oman
It is a little strange that Syria, who dominated China’s group, becoming the second team after Japan to reach the next stage, are ranked below China.
Despite never playing at home, they breezed through Group A thanks to a strong team spirit, a cutting edge in attack, and being very frustrating to play against, especially when falling behind to them.
Oman would surely be a more welcome proposition, a tidy team but one that was very much second best in their group below Qatar.
Pot 6: Lebanon or Vietnam
Of the weakest seeds, Lebanon would perhaps be preferable over Vietnam. A trip to Beirut is never an easy task for any team but the Cedars were slightly fortunate to take second in their group and probably would not have done so had North Korea not withdrawn.
Vietnam is Asia’s most improved team, full of passion, hard work, and incredible home support and pushed the UAE all the way. As they say however, at this stage, there will be no easy games.