JEDDAH: For Saudi Arabia, qualification to the 2022 World Cup finals edges ever so closer. A win over Japan at Saitama Stadium tomorrow, in fact, will confirm a sixth appearance at football’s biggest stage and a second in a row.
Billed as the toughest group out of the two in Asia, Group B of the Asian World Cup qualifiers continues to provide intrigue as it heads into its final three rounds of fixtures.
Thursday’s matches saw no change in the standings for the four top teams, as Saudi Arabia continued leading the group with its 1-0 victory over Oman who stayed in fourth place — whereas second-placed Japan recorded a 2-0 win over China and third-placed Australia easily dispatched Vietnam 4-0.
The results mean Saudi Arabia sit comfortably atop of the group with a four-point gap over Japan who they face in their next outing. A win for the Green Falcons would ensure progression, while other outcomes could go a long way to deciding who joins Iran as the second Asian team to qualify for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.
Saudi Arabia managing to grind out a narrow victory against a resilient Omani team has meant that they relieved some of the pressure heading into Tuesday’s fixture, as they guaranteed that regardless of the outcome, Japan would unable to leapfrog them in the table on the day.
On the other hand, Japan who keep having to look over their shoulder as Australia sit one point away from them in the table, could be out of the guaranteed qualifying spots if they fail to outdo Australia’s result on Tuesday. Japan will look to use their home advantage to even the score with Saudi Arabia who they lost to three months ago in Jeddah.
The last few outings between the two sides have been tight affairs, four matches split with two wins a piece with all matches ending with a one goal difference.
The clear losers of last Thursday’s round of matches were Oman, who despite a promising display could not convert their chances against Saudi, failing to close the gap on third-placed Australia who, as things stand, hold the playoff spot in Group B. Currently seven points adrift of third place, Oman have dug themselves into a hole that may prove too deep to climb out off.
Oman face Australia on Tuesday in a crucial match with nothing but a win needed to keep their hopes alive. If they fail to win then the gap will increase to 10 points and they will mathematically be ruled out of the race for third. Whoever finishes third faces a tough path to the World Cup, having to participate in a play-off against whoever finishes third in Group A of the Asian Qualifiers. The winner of that play-off will eventually play a decider against a South American team who is yet to be determined as they too are playing out their remaining fixtures.
Australia will look to avoid this route as a win over Oman will allow the country to control its fate going into the last two rounds of fixtures where they will face Japan and Saudi Arabia.
Tuesday’s fixtures will go a long way in determining who will finish in the top three spots of Group B, and in what order.
A victory for Saudi Arabia will confirm their position as one of Asia’s footballing giants.
The recent resurgence in the national team — having qualified for France 2018 — correlates with the resurgence of Saudi club football as Al-Hilal have won two of the last three editions of the AFC Champions League. Australia and Japan, meanwhile, will continue their quest for automatic qualification whereas Oman look to stay in contention for third.