Iran and South Korea to Represent Asia at 2022 World Cup
Matchday Two of the Asian 2022 World Cup qualifiers January break was full of highs and lows and unexpected surprises.
In Group A, South Korea became the second Asian nation to qualify for the 2022 tournament after Iran booked their place at the World Cup on Matchday One. The United Arab Emirates, with the two automatic qualification spots already taken, now has a clear mission - secure third place for a chance at the playoffs. After a disappointing draw with Iraq, Lebanon has an uphill fight to challenge the UAE's third-place spot. Iraq and Syria are effectively out of the running.
In Group B, Saudi Arabia, unbeaten in the tournament over the last fifteen matches, finally fell to Japan, who continued their rise up the table after a slow start to the competition. Australia ended the break with their direct qualification hopes hanging by a thread after a draw against Oman. The Aussies face a tough fight to topple either Saudi or Japan in the tournament's final matches. Despite a thrilling draw against Australia, Oman is out of the running, as are China and Vietnam. Vietnam, however, finally and unexpectedly managed to get some points on the scoreboard with an emphatic Matchday Two win over China.
The AFC Qualifiers
In its third and final round, the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) qualifiers are just two matchdays away from completion. The recent games over the January break brought the standings into sharper focus - of the contesting twelve teams, two have booked their places to Qatar, and only two direct slots remain. The teams, divided into two groups of six, have been contesting the top four slots to win their places at the 2022 tournament. Iran and South Korea have taken group A's top spots. Group B's are still in contention. The third-placed team in each group will meet again in a fourth round in May. The head-to-head match will determine who goes through to the inter-confederation playoffs in June for another chance at qualifying.
South Korea's win over Syria caused the most excitement on Matchday Two of the break. The 2-0 victory pushed the Koreans over the finish line in terms of qualification points, giving the team more than good reason to celebrate as they won their spot at the 2022 World Cup tournament. The Koreans are the 14th nation to qualify for the 2022 competition and the 10th consecutive Taegeuk Warriors squad to appear at the World Cup since 1986. Korea's Kin Jin-su got the ball rolling with the opening shot in the 53rd minute of the game. After rising to meet teammate Kim Tae-hwan's cross, Jin-su headed a powerful shot to the back of the net. Kwon Chang-hoon made sure of the win in the 71st minute with a strike that bounced just beyond the reach of the Syrian keeper. South Korea now sits on 20 points, two behind group leader Iran. Syria is at the bottom of the table on just 2 points.
Iran took on the UAE in their final match of the window. Although Team Melli had already booked its place in Qatar following their previous win against Iraq, they played to maintain their top spot position. While the Iranians dominated the ball and were the more threatening team, the match was relatively hard-fought against their spirited opponents, keen to keep their automatic qualification hopes alive. However, a 44th minute shot from Mehdi Taremi was all that was needed to take the win for Iran. Iranian captain Alizera Jahanbaksh sent a cross to teammate Ali Gholizdeh, whose header hit the bar. Taremi took advantage of the rebound and slotted the ball home. Iran now sits on 22 points at the top of the table. The UAE, in third place, has 9 points and must fight for a chance at the playoffs.
Lebanon and Iraq both needed the win from their second January matchday bout - only a victory would maintain either team’s slim qualification chances. On the day, a single goal each meant a share of the points, not enough to bolster either team. Iraq was first to get on the scoreboard with a goal from Aymen Hussein in the 39th minute. Lebanon wasn't far behind with an equaliser from Maher Sabra just before the end of the first half. Despite the best efforts of both teams, neither could find a winning shot throughout the second half. Lebanon now sits in fourth place on six, three points behind the UAE. To stand any chance of leapfrogging The Whites to qualify for the only thing left to play for, the playoffs, Lebanon will have to beat both Syria and Iran in the March window and hope that the UAE struggle against Iraq and South Korea. Iraq sits in fifth place on five points.
Japan and Saudi Arabia kicked off Group B’s action on the final day of the break. The Saudis would have clinched a ticket to the World Cup with a win over the Japanese. However, with a 2-0 win, the Blue Samurais denied Saudi Arabia the victory. Until their defeat by the Japanese, the third round of the campaign saw the Green Falcons unbeaten. Their first place position at the top of the standings is now under threat as only a single point separates the two board leaders. The triumph was a vital win for Japan, looking to make their 7th appearance at the World Cup tournament. The match's first goal was a 31st-minute screamer sent home by Japan's Takumi Minamino, assisted by Junya Ito. Ito struck in the 50th with a stunning effort that went through a Saudi defender's legs and into the top left corner of the goal. Japan will need to tackle a desperate Australia and a plucky Vietnam in March and will be hoping to steal the Falcons top spot. Saudi Arabia needs to snatch victory against China and Australia to defend its position.
Australia went head-to-head with Oman in a game they were expected to win. A victory would have seen them rise to just a single point behind Japan and only two points behind Saudi Arabia. The match started well with the Socceroos taking the lead from a penalty shot in the first 15 minutes - an earlier goal was ruled offside. The shot from Jamie Mclaren boosted the Aussies confidence, and Oman struggled to find an opening for the rest of the first half. However, nine minutes into the second half, Oman's Abdullah Fawaz made a speculative long-range shot that rocketed to the back of Australia's net, evening the playing field. The Socceroos doubled their lead when Aaron Mooy punted home a shot in the 79th, but a foul from Fran Karacic gave away a penalty in the dying minutes of the game. The Omanis took advantage, and Fawaz struck home again to end the match on a draw. Australia managed just a single point and will have to work miracles to do anything other than qualify for the playoffs. No longer in the running, Oman sits in fourth place on 8 points.
Vietnam, who were officially eliminated from qualifying over the window, met with China. Vietnam had previously lost seven consecutive games in this round and had no points on the scoreboard - China was expected to take the three points. Nonetheless, Vietnam entered the pitch with intent and chalked off three goals to one - a superb triumph for the Golden Star Warriors, who are at their first qualifiers to date. The first goal came from a close-range header courtesy of Ho Tan Tai nine minutes into the game. Seven minutes later, Nguyen Lien Linh doubled the Vietnamese lead, and a shocked China went into the interval 2-0 down. A long-range effort from Phan Van Duc in the second half netted Vietnam their third goal, and despite China's consolation goal in extra time, the team scored its first-ever win over China. Both teams will now be playing for pride only as China faces Saudi Arabia and Oman, and Vietnam meets Oman and Japan.
The standings at the end of the January international break are as follows:
|South Korea (Qualified)