LONDON: After Thursday’s action, we are halfway through the final round of qualification for the 2022 World Cup. The 12 nations involved are divided into two groups of six and only the top two from each go automatically to Qatar. The two third-placed teams meet each other in a play-off with the winner going through to a final showdown, probably with a team from Concacaf.
Here are five things we learned from the latest round of matches involving Arab teams.
Korean whirlwind leaves United Arab Emirates in trouble
The scoreline might have said South Korea 1 UAE 0 but this was as one-sided a single goal victory as anyone will see in Asia this year. The more reflective statistic was 21 shots to four. In truth, the home team should have been out of sight by half-time, with Son Heung-min especially wasteful as the Tottenham Hotspur star hit the woodwork twice and missed some good chances.
UAE were never out of the game but were barely in it. They just couldn’t cope with the fast running and swift passing of the hosts and when the midfield got hold of the ball, possession was swiftly lost. Star striker Ali Mabkhout got little service and they have virtually no chance of finishing in the top two and winning automatic qualification.
The problem is that if the Whites lose to Lebanon — or draw — on Tuesday, then even finishing third and getting into the play-offs will be tricky. Three points from the first five games is just not good enough and, while the investigation can come later, for now the focus has to be on getting three points in Sidon or dreams of Qatar may be over.
Lebanon should be proud despite late heartbreak
Few would have been surprised to see Iran win 2-1 in Lebanon but that does not tell the full story. As the clock reached 90 minutes, the Cedars were 1-0 ahead. Then came two goals in stoppage time that broke Lebanese hearts and put Iran back on top of Group A.
The men in red sank to their knees on the final whistle. A win would have put them just two points behind the mighty Iranians, almost unthinkable. Even a draw would likely have kept them in third.
Yet it is not the time to dwell on what might have been but what was and what could be. It was the kind of battling performance you expect from Lebanon, the team was well-organised, well-drilled and motivated.
In the end, perhaps fatigue played a part as there were a couple of tired passes and clearances. There is still hope with the next four games all at home. Beat UAE on Tuesday and third place is very much on the cards — and the pain of this defeat will be forgotten.
Mature Oman still in hunt for third after 1-1 draw with China
The men from Muscat are unfortunate to be in such a tough group. To finish above one of Australia, Japan or Saudi Arabia is a big ask and it is no surprise or shame that it will probably be beyond the Reds. Even so, they are giving it a good go.
The draw with China showed once again that Oman can live with anyone in Asia on their day. Had the team taken their chances, it could have been another win to put them one point off the top two automatic qualification spots.
It was not just about the result. Oman were the better team, controlled possession for the most part and set the tempo. China looked dangerous at times, especially from set pieces but from open play Oman showed that they are a force to be reckoned with.
The biggest problem for Branko Ivankovic’s men is that while finishing fourth is a big achievement and puts them in the top seven or eight teams in Asia, it will not be enough to keep hopes of a first ever World Cup alive.
Iraq have no chance of automatic qualification
Iraq have yet to taste victory in the final round of qualification and a 1-1 draw with Syria was a disappointing result in a game they had to win. And it was a game they could have won. The passing was not quite as precise as it should have been but the pressure was there for large periods against the Syrians.
For the second successive game, Iraq scored in the dying minutes, and for the second successive game they did not get the full three points. Had the forwards been more clinical, things might have been different.
This time, however, a failure to win means that third place is going to be the limit of their ambitions. To get there however, sooner or later there needs to be a win. The talent is there but the results are not, yet.
Syria are last but are still in with a chance
Group A is either so competitive or not as strong as it should be, so that a team with two points from the first five games is still in with a chance of reaching the World Cup. Syria are only three points behind Lebanon in third place. Any of the bottom four teams in the group can beat each other and, while Syria have some ground to make up, they are capable.
Against South Korea it took a last-minute Son Heung-min goal to defeat them, against Lebanon they dominated but somehow lost 3-2, and against Iraq they were denied a crucial win due to a late equaliser. If things had gone just a little differently, Syria would be comfortable in third place. Just because Syria are last does not mean that the dream is over.