RIYADH: Tuesday’s Asian qualifiers for the 2022 World Cup saw a significant win for previously struggling Japan, while the UAE continue to falter. Here are five things learned from Matchday Four.
1. Japan’s win means three in Group B going for two automatic places
There is little doubt that when Saudi Arabia coach Herve Renard sat down in the early Riyadh afternoon to watch the clash between Japan and Australia in Saitama Stadium, that he would have wanted the Socceroos to get something from the game instead of suffering a late 2-1 loss.
Had the visitors won, it would have left Japan with three points from four games and, assuming Saudi Arabia defeated China (as they did) nine points behind the Green Falcons.
It would have been very difficult to imagine the Samurai Blue overturning a deficit of that size and the current top two would surely have stayed in those positions.
That late own goal from Aziz Behich, who had something of a nightmare game at left-back, put Japan back in the hunt for automatic qualification. They looked more like their old selves and deserved the win and now what could have been a two-horse race for the top two spots is being contested by three — all due respect to Oman.
2. Hope slipping away for the UAE
The UAE’s 2-2 draw with Iraq in Dubai was a mad affair and the emotions at the end can only be guessed at.
Brazilian-born Caio Canedo Correa has not really made the difference expected for his adopted country but in this game, he put the Whites ahead. Yet after 93 minutes, Dick Advocaat’s Iraq were on course for a famous win before a late equalizer from Ali Mabkhout. There was still time for the video assistant referee to rule out what could have been a crucial winner for Bert van Marwijk’s men.
Once all the chaos, drama, and excitement has disappeared however, the fact remains that the UAE have just three points from the first four games. Five points behind South Korea in second is not where they want to be if there are serious hopes of a top-two finish.
Having said that there is still time and one more chance. Should Van Marwijk lead the UAE to victory in South Korea in November, the race for second will be on. Defeat will snuff out almost any hopes.
3. Lebanon and Oman riding high
Before the final stage of qualification started, not many would have predicted that after the first four games, Lebanon and Oman would be in third place in Groups A and B, respectively.
As the clock hit 45 minutes, Syria were leading Lebanon 1-0 but then it all changed as the lowest-ranked team in the group caught fire. Both goals came from Mohammed Kdouh. The first was a close-range effort to finish a fluid move and the second, moments later, was a screamer from outside the area that flew into the top corner. Soony Saad’s low shot early in the second half made it 3-1.
Omar Al-Somah pulled one back and Syria hit the bar with the last action of the game and then, once the final whistle sounded, you would have thought that Lebanon had won the World Cup. The players stood in a circle, bounced, danced, and celebrated with their fans. There has not been much to cheer about in Lebanon in recent years, but this was a game to bring much-needed smiles to citizens everywhere.
Oman were also impressive in coming back from a goal down to defeat Vietnam and take a second win in four games to go above Japan in third place due to goals scored.
4. Iraq have issues
It was a strange day for Iraq. The Lions of Mesopotamia were minutes away from a huge 2-1 win in Dubai but ended up grateful to VAR for the 2-2 draw. Having three points from four games does not do their automatic qualification chances a great deal of good but third place is still just two points away.
The planned return to home soil in November should help but what does not help are the rumors circulating that the Iraqi FA does not want coach Advocaat to select certain overseas players. True or not, Iraq need all the help they can get to challenge for qualification. Results have not been good enough so far but there is still time to improve. Not much time, though.
5. Syria contribute to an epic day of qualification action
This writer has been watching Asian World Cup qualification since the last century and it is hard to remember a day so entertaining. All 12 teams scored and there were all kinds of spectacular goals, VAR interventions, and talking points.
Syria 2-3 Lebanon was something of a surprise and there was a suspicion that Syria underestimated the group’s lowest-ranked team. If so, they did a great service for the watching neutrals as this was a game that had everything. If there are still those around who complain about international breaks then they should be made to watch 90 minutes of great goals, scrambles, and a whole host of missed opportunities.
The loss leaves Syria looking forlorn with just one point from four games and hopes of automatic qualification as good as over. Indeed, a repeat of third place at the same stage in qualification for the 2018 World Cup is only going to be on the cards if the defending improves.