Asia World Cup qualifying, final round: The new, deeper qualifying field

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While Africa and CONCACAF’s World Cup qualifying are just gearing up (and Europe’s hasn’t even started), Asia’s is already down to 10 nations. Those aspirants, survivors from the 43 teams that originally entered qualifying, started AFC’s fourth round this weekend.

Format

The 10 teams are split into two, five-team groups set to compete in an eight-match round-robin tournament. First and second place finishers qualify for Brazil. The third place finishers meet to determine who gets to face CONMEBOL’s fifth for the last spot in at World Cup 2014.

It’s the same qualifying format the Asian Football Confederation used for South Africa. For me, it’s the best qualifying format in the world. It’s very similar to CONCACAF except it doesn’t boil down to one group (after which, most of the teams will still be alive). It’s better than South America’s marathon, more forgiving (read: fair) than Africa, and avoids the nauseating inclusiveness of Europe’s one, big, final stage.

Beyond what you know: Asia coming of age

There is, however, one huge difference between this year’s tournament and the one which sent four teams to the 2010 World Cup. Last time, there was a clear divide between Australia, Japan and South Korea (who combined for one loss in 24 fourth round games) and the rest of Asia. This year, there’ll be no paved roads, with the emergence (or re-emergence) of at least three nations giving the final stage some needed depth:

  • Iraq, who missed the World Cup after winning Asia’s championship in 2009, appear to have gotten back on track, going undefeated through third round qualifying.
  • Likewise, Iran has regained their swagger, posting a tournament-best +12 goal difference in the previous phase.
  • Uzbekistan, who have regularly produced intriguing teams at U-levels, have justifiably high hopes, going 5-0-1 (W-L-D) in a third round group that included Japan.
  • Add in Qatar, who also went undefeated through the previous round, and the confederation could conceivably see one of its big three stumble.

If a stumble happens, the most team most likely to trip up will be Australia. The Socceroos enjoyed a certain element of surprise in the last qualifying tournament, with many of their goals (and chances) coming off set pieces or crosses that took advantage of the likes of Joshua Kennedy and Tim Cahill. In truth, the Asian teams seemed a bit tactically naive, perhaps underestimating the viability of such a direct approach. Though Holgier Osieck’s team had no trouble in the third round, they’re unlikely to streamroll the final phase this time (though it would be a shock if they didn’t qualify for Brazil).

Australia, along with South Korea, had the weekend off, as will one team from each five-nation group for each match day.

source: Getty ImagesGroup A

Pos. Nation GP Pts Diff.
1 Iran 1 3 +1
1 Qatar 1 3 +1
3 South Korea 0 0 0
4 Uzbekistan 1 0 -1
4 Lebanon 1 0 -1

Lebanon saw 40,000 come out to support the team against Qatar, an encouraging turnaround from the relative disinterest that met qualifying’s onset. Unfortunately for the Beirut faithful, their side dropped a home match to an opponent that’s very much an unproven side. Even for a tournament neophyte, Qatar at home should get a result (else, how did you get this far in the competition). Regardless, Uruguay-born Sebastian Soria was able to push Qatar to the top of the group, scoring the match’s only goal in the 64th minute.

Iran excused a controversial smash-and-grab in Tashkent, with the Uzbeks having a goal ruled out despite the shot having clearly cross the line. Reports had Iran defender Jalal Hosseini well inside the goal when he cleared Odil Ahmedov’s 74th minute shot. Twenty minutes later – well into stoppage time – Mohammad Reza Khalatbari converted to give Iran full points.

In Lebanon on Friday, Uzbekistan needs to respond. It will be very easy for their relatively young team to dwell on the perceived injustice. Uzbekistan, however, had road success in the previous round, hinting they’re capable of reclaiming the lost points.

Group B

Pos. Nation GP Pts Diff.
1 Japan 1 3 +3
2 Iraq 1 1 +0
3 Jordan 1 1 0
4 Australia 0 0 0
5 Oman 1 0 -3

Along with Lebanon, Oman looked like a potential minnow. They did little to disavow that notion in Saitama, falling behind by three before the hour mark. Keisuke Honda (finally healthy), Ryoichi Maeda and Shinji Okazaki scored for Japan, who host Jordan on Thursday with a chance to race to a quick, commanding lead.

Jordan’s 1-1 result against visiting Iraq was billed as the Jordanians holding the favorites to a point, but this was a good result for the Iraqis. This tournament’s traditionally defined by avoiding road losses, which Iraq has done. With second place finishers going through to Brazil, accumulating one-point results on the road is a formula for success (provided you can win most of your home games).