In Asia, the road to the FIFA World Cup 2018 in Russia is in full swing, with over 40 teams contesting the four or five available slots in the world’s biggest sports event. The continent’s entries to the world may be considered as cannon fodder to all the teams worldwide, but Asia loves their football as much.
Here are my fearful predictions of what will likely transpire and the teams likely to play football in Mother Russia.
The First Round Recap
The first round of the qualifiers concluded a few months ago, wherein the lowest-ranked teams in Asia (those ranked 35-46) in the continent competed for a spot in the second round. Here are the results:
• India defeated Nepal 2-0 on aggregate. (2-0) (0-0)
• Yemen eased past Pakistan 3-1 on aggregate. (3-1) (0-0)
• Timor Leste destroyed Mongolia 5-1 on aggregate. (4-1) (1-0)
• Cambodia breezed through Macau 4-1 on aggregate. (3-0) (1-1)
• Chinese Taipei narrowly beat Brunei, 2-1 on aggregate – they lost the first leg. (0-1) (2-0)
• Bhutan beat Sri Lanka 3-1 on aggregate. (1-0) (2-1)
The six countries that made it will join 34 others in the second round.
All 40 teams will play eight matches each, one at home and one in their opponent’s home turf. The teams topping the group, along with the best runners-up, will advance to the 3rd round of the qualifiers and qualify to the 2019 Asian Cup.
The first and second spot will be hotly contested by the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, while Malaysia and Palestine will decide 3rd and 4th. Timor Leste will likely be the bottom feeders. UAE is fresh off a 3rd place finish in the 2015 Asian Cup, highlighted by an upset victory against Japan and a 3-2 win against Iraq in the 3rd place match.
Australia, the 2015 Asian Cup winners, will likely end up on top. Jordan, a team that narrowly missed the 2014 World Cup, is the only team capable of challenging Australia and will likely place 2nd. Bangladesh will end up last while 3rd and 4th spots will be fought over by the Central Asians, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. The “Socceroos” are favored to go all the way this year… as they have always been.
“Team Dragon”, the nickname Chinese fans call their national team, performed magnificently in the 2015 Asian Cup, sweeping the first round (vs Uzbekistan, Saudi Arabia and North Korea) before falling short in the quarterfinals against Australia. The Chinese will likely top the group, while Qatar will finish runners-up. Maldives and Bhutan are evenly matched, but will pose no challenge against China and Qatar: either of them will finish 3rd or 4th while Bhutan will likely end up last.
Iran, a perennial Asian powerhouse, will likely end up on top of the group while looking to redeem themselves after a shock quarterfinal defeat against Iraq in the 2015 Asian Cup. Oman is stronger on paper compared to India and Turkmenistan, but their matches will be competitive: it would be hard to predict which team will place 2nd, 3rd, and 4th. For sure though, Guam will end up last.
Japan, AKA the Samurai Blue, will come out with swords swinging after an early and shocking exit in the Asian Cup. Having qualified in the World Cup for since 1998 and flashing deadly form since March (destroyed Uzbekistan 5-1 and winning 2-0 vs Tunisia), will definitely top the group and make it to Russia. The second spot will likely be occupied by Syria, which has remained competitive in recent years despite the domestic turmoil. They will be contested heavily by Singapore and Afghanistan, while Cambodia is the cannon fodder in this group.
This group is the South East Asian derby, considering that three SEA teams, Vietnam, Thailand, and Indonesia have been drawn in it, with Iraq and Chinese Taipei joining them. The first game actually happened three days ago, with Thailand beating Vietnam 1-0 in Bangkok. Regardless, Iraq is will likely top the group despite disturbing news at home, with Thailand and Vietnam looking to pounce on the Asian Cup 4th placers. Indonesia, despite being a football-crazy country, will likely end up 4th while Chinese Taipei could end up last, barring any upsets.
South Korea will top this group, hands down. The Taeguk Warriors finished runners up in the Asian Cup, and are aiming to redeem themselves. Bear in mind that they’ve qualified to every edition of the World Cup since 1986, and their best performance came in 2002, where they finished 4th. However, Kuwait and Lebanon could pose a challenge to the Koreans, but will likely end up either 2nd or third. Meanwhile, Myanmar and Laos, won’t pose a challenge to three and will fight for 4th.
This group fits every description of what people consider “The Group of Death”. Though Uzbekistan will seem to be the runaway winners, they are of equal strength with Bahrain and North Korea, teams who are looking to perform better after falling short in the Asian Cup. Do not count the Philippines out: despite being Asia’s favorite whipping boys a decade ago, the South East Asian country experienced a football revolution in 2010. The “Azkals” (or stray dogs) have the capabilities to upset the top three teams, considering that they will be bannered by Fil-European campaigners Stephan Schrock, Luke Woodland and Stephan Palla. Meanwhile, Yemen will likely end up last, unless if they display top form against the other teams.
The dream is on for 40 countries, as well as their fans. The games will start on June 11 (except the May 24th match between Thailand and Vietnam), and once hostilities open up, expect fireworks.
If this article makes you want to go out and play football, be sure to apply sunscreen beforehand!