RIYADH: The completion of Thursday’s 2022 World Cup qualifiers will mark the halfway point in the final round, in which 12 teams throughout Asia are divided into two groups of six battling for the top two automatic World Cup spots on offer in each.
Here are five talking points for the Arab teams ahead of all the action.
1. The UAE have to fight the cold as well as South Korean stars Son, Hwang
There is good and bad news for the UAE ahead of their huge clash in South Korea on Thursday. After four games, the Emiratis have collected just three points and are five behind Korea who are currently in second.
It is not where they wanted to be, and it is no exaggeration to say that defeat in East Asia will virtually end automatic qualification hopes. After that, it will be all about third and the play-offs.
The good news is that while the Taeguk Warriors, going for a 10th successive World Cup appearance, can call upon English Premier League stars such Son Heung-min and Hwang Hee-chan they only arrived in Seoul on Tuesday and will have just two days of training, three fewer than the UAE. Jet lag and fatigue has been an issue before for the Europe-based players.
The bad news is that temperatures are predicted to fall below zero degrees in Goyang on Thursday evening. The UAE will have to battle unfamiliar conditions as well as the opposition.
2. Syria need to take the handbrake off
Syria’s players must be tired of hearing about the campaign for Russia 2018 when they finished third in their group and pushed Australia all the way in the continental play-offs. This time, so far, the team have not approached such levels in terms of results with just one point from the first four games.
In terms of performances, they have been a little unlucky. It started with a creditable 1-1 draw in the UAE. Then came three narrow defeats: 1-0 to Iran, 2-1 to a last-minute goal against South Korea, and 3-2 in Lebanon. The team could have got something out of the first two games and on another day would have taken all three against the Cedars.
That is history now. Syria simply have to get three points against Iraq to kick-start their stuttering campaign. Much depends on their talented forwards Omar Al-Somah and Omar Khribin. They have shone in moments but Syria need to take the shackles off, get more men forward and really start to supply the stars up front.
3. Lebanon can take advantage of Iran problems
Lebanon are riding high in third place in the group after their thrilling 3-2 victory over Syria last month and now face group leaders Iran at home. This is a tough prospect, but one made easier by the fact that Iran coach Dragan Skocic has left out Mehdi Taremi, reportedly due to some negative comments from the striker.
The Croatian boss is trying to send a message, but it remains to be seen if it is the right move as Taremi is perhaps the best Asian striker at the moment and already has 10 goals for FC Porto this season. His partnership with Sardar Azmoun for Team Melli is greatly feared and highly effective.
It does not mean that Lebanon’s task will be easy against a team still stacked with talent, but it will be easier. The Cedars showed an ability to defend well against Korea and have also been able to nick goals too. If they can upset Iran, then their fans will really start to believe that third place is possible.
4. Oman can come out from under the radar against China
If it is something of a surprise that Lebanon are in third in Group A, that is nothing to Oman being in the same position in Group B. Six points from the opening four games has the Reds above Japan. Thursday brings a chance to make it nine, stay above the Samurai Blue and even start to put pressure on the top two places.
A trip to China would normally be tough but due to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, the game will take place in Sharjah, a short trip from Muscat to a stadium that will not be filled with 50,000 Chinese fans.
China showed spirit in losing 3-2 against Saudi Arabia last month and are likely to start with their Brazilian players this time after criticism of the coach Li Tie. Team Dragon’s desperation to win can be used against them.
Under Branko Ivankovic, Oman are well-organized, quick in transition, and move the ball around well. Do the same on Thursday, and there is no reason why they cannot add to China’s woes and stay in the hunt for a place in Qatar next year.
5. Time for Advocaat to show his worth
Life is never boring when it comes to the Iraq national team. If they are not winning the Asian Cup, then there are all kinds of behind-the-scenes battles going on — sometimes both happen at the same time.
In recent weeks there has been controversy and reports that certain officials have been telling coach Dick Advocaat, who was appointed in July, that some overseas-based players are not committed to the national team, comments that seem to have come as a surprise to those players.
All this has made the job more difficult for the experienced Dutchman, but he still needs to dig deep and show why he got it in the first place. So far, there has been lots of spirit and determination on the pitch but now it is time to deliver points. There were impressive draws and a disappointing tie with Lebanon and then that 2-2 game with the UAE. On the face of it, it was a good result, but when leading with a minute to play, a win was expected. In the end, Iraq were grateful to come away with a point.
The Mesopotamia Lions have a good record against Syria, though recent clashes have usually ended all square, and while the game will take place in Doha and not as they had hoped, Basra, this has to be a home win.
South Korea are up next week, and Advocaat will not want to be in the position of needing to beat the East Asians. He has named a fresh-looking squad, and this is time for a fresh start.