Major players – Rating Asia's World Cup/Asian Cup hopes
Back in March this year, a total of 46 Asian nations embarked upon the lofty task of qualifying for the 2018 World Cup in Russia. Following a first-round knockout series between the region’s 12 lowest-ranked sides, coupled with Indonesia’s suspension by FIFA, that number was quickly reduced to 39 teams.
Only a handful of sides – likely to include Japan, South Korea, Australia, Iran, United Arab Emirates, Uzbekistan, China and Iraq – have any real shot at getting to Moscow in less than three years’ time. But there is still plenty to play for as the tournament also doubles as qualification for the 2019 Asian Cup, which will be held in the United Arab Emirates.
With that tournament expanding from 16 teams to 24 for the first time, there has never been a better chance for Asian teams to get themselves into a big, international competition. The eight group winners, plus the four best group runners-up, gain automatic Asian Cup qualification. The next 24 teams will then participate in round three for the remaining 12 slots.
So, the big question is – how are they all shaping up?
As 2019 Asian Cup hosts, the United Arab Emirates are already guaranteed qualification. But one suspects they have their eyes on a bigger prize. The UAE have previously reached one World Cup, bowing out in the group stages of Italy 1990, and they appear to be right in the thick of qualifying for Russia 2018.
They suffered a slightly surprising 0-0 draw overnight with a Palestine side that is proving no easy beat, but the Emirati still boast seven points out of a possible nine. With a young, talented line-up, led by budding superstar Omar Abdulrahman, ‘the Whites’ might just be ready to push Japan, Australia et al for World Cup qualification.
They do have a fight on their hands in Group A, however, with both Palestine and Saudi Arabia proving more than competitive. Once Saudi Arabia are credited with three points from Wednesday night’s abandoned match against Malaysia, as expected, they will top the group with a perfect record.
They scraped past Palestine 3-2 in their opening fixture before casting aside Timor-Leste 7-0 prior to the match in Kuala Lumpur, although they are yet to face the UAE home or away. Palestine’s 6-0 thrashing of Malaysia and draw with UAE has them sitting third with a healthy +5 goal difference.
With Timor-Leste and Malaysia stuck on one point each, the situation looks forlorn for both nations already. It could still get worse for Malaysia depending on FIFA’s response to their current woes, on and off the pitch.