The winner of the two-leg playoff will meet the fourth-place CONCACAF team in home-and-away matches in November for a spot at the World Cup in Russia in 2018.
Australia and Syria finished in third place in their respective groups in Asian qualifying. Japan, Saudi Arabia, Iran and South Korea were the direct qualifiers after finishing in the top two in each group.
The merits of a 48-team World Cup (and sample draw)
There’s something in those arguments, but the gains will outweigh the losses across the world. In other words, we have to be careful that we aren’t living in an echo chamber that the political world would even find a bit goofy.
Consider New Zealand, by far the strongest team in its region, has not be assured a spot in the tournament unless it can win a playoff tie. Or great stories like Bob Bradley‘s Egypt, who was at the mercy of a home-and-home battle for a World Cup group despite going 6-0 in group play.
Look it’s easy to be selfish in these instances, but we are not likely to be dealing with the oft-cited “Tahiti in the 2013 Confederations Cup” scenario.
In fact, let’s consider how it would look. Let’s assume that the 16 groups of three teams still feature one seeded team and confederations remain separated.
UEFA will get 16 teams, and have one team per group. CONMEBOL goes up to six teams, with CONCACAF going to 6.5. Africa goes up to nine, while Asia moves to 8.5. Oceania gets one, presumably, with the hosts snaring an extra.
Using ELOratings.net and the FIFA ratings, here is who would be headed for the World Cup:
So, you’re getting more games and more meaningful games, each in their own individual television window. Even groups that seem clean cut — like Spain, Saudi Arabia, and Costa Rica — could be flipped on their ear by the end of the first match.
For what it’s worth, I would not end every match with penalty kicks and keep draws. I’d rather see extra time than an impetus for Greece to pack it inside its own 18 for 90 minutes.
But I believe we’d see something better from a 48-team tournament, and it would mostly end the days of, “Man I wish this list of stars was at the World Cup” (or at least make the list much smaller).
As for the “dud teams” involved, those countries get one less guaranteed game by the move to 3-team groups. And while in some ways qualifying would certainly suffer, consider the following scenarios. With CONMEBOL having 1.5 more spots, you’d see teams 9 and 10 alive longer in qualifying. That’s why it’s arguably an improvement for South America, who should’ve gone to a Hex-style format long ago.
What do you think? Are you bummed about the 48-team World Cup? Or is a lot of the furor rooted in a preference to dislike FIFA moves from the hop?
Sardar Azmoun continued his insane run to start life as a senior international, as the 21-year-old Rostov striker netted his 16th goal in 22 caps for Iran, which is atop Group A while Korea Republic slips third.
Uzbekistan 2-0 China
The White Wolves rebounded from a home loss to Iran to clinch its third win of qualifying on two second half goals. Veteran Marat Bikmaev and 20-year-old Otabek Shukurov scored for the hosts.
Australia 1-1 Japan
Aston Villa midfielder Mile Jedinak converted a 52nd minute penalty to keep Australia in an automatic qualifying spot, one point ahead of Japan. The visitors opened the scoring through Hertha Berlin winger Genki Haraguchi in the fifth.
Saudi Arabia 3-0 United Arab Emirates
Both sides had the chance to take advantage of group powers Australia and Japan drawing, and it was the Saudis who got the job done on goals from three different players. The Green Falcons lead Group B with 10 points, while UAE is a point back of Japan and sits fourth.
Qatar 1-0 Syria
The lone goal of the game comes from a Hassan Al Haidous penalty.
Iraq 4-0 Thailand
Not one, not two, not three, but four goals came from 23-year-old Mohannad Abdul-Raheem, who plays for Al-Zawra’a SC in Iraq.
The day begins with the probable best of the bunch. Ageless Tim Cahill and Australia dropped their first points of qualifying in Thursday’s draw in Saudi Arabia, and now host Japan in Melbourne. The Samurai Blue has rebounded from an opening day upset at home to UAE, but those were expected wins against Thailand and Iraq. Australia is a different story.
No players have scored more in qualifying than UAE‘s Ahmed Khalil and Saudi Arabia‘s Mohammad Al-Sahlawi, with 14 goals each. Both will aim to go atop Group B, hopeful of an Australia loss or tie.
Over in Group A, things are only a little less congested between the Top Four. World Cup veteran sides Iran and South Korea will tangle. The hosting Taegeuk Warriors have yet to lose in qualifying and the same can be said for Team Melli. Should be a fun one.
As for the lifelines, Iraq hosts Thailand and a loser would be a minimum of six points adrift of even a World Cup playoff spot. Qatar needs to hold serve against a Syria side which could sneak into the Group A discussion with a road win.
Tuesday matches Australia vs. Japan — 5 a.m. ET
Iraq vs. Thailand — 8:30 a.m. ET
Uzbekistan vs. China — 9 a.m. ET
Iran vs. South Korea — 10:45 a.m. ET
Qatar vs. Syria — Noon ET
Saudi Arabia vs. UAE — 1:45 p.m. ET
Asia is chasing four automatic spots in the 2018 World Cup, and opened its final group play round Thursday with no lack of surprise results.
AFC will send the top two teams from Groups A and B of qualifying, while the third place teams will play a home-and-home series for the right to face CONCACAF’s fourth place side.
Let’s begin at Saitama Stadium, where world N0. 48 Japan was stunned by United Arab Emirates. Keisuke Honda opened the scoring for the hosts before 25-year-old Al Ahli striker Ahmed Khalil and scored on both sides of halftime to give UAE a 2-1 win for a surprising three points.
Japan hasn’t missed a World Cup since 1994, and this loss stings given that most of Group B’s sides will expect to handle UAE at home (UAE recently lost to Jordan and Syria).
World No. 120 Thailand came close to striking an upset blow, but Nawaf Al-Abed converted a late penalty to give hosts Saudi Arabia a win. Australia got a pair of second half goals to ease to a home win over Iraq.
Next up: Tuesday matches between Iraq and Saudi Arabia, Thailand and Japan, and UAE and Australia.
In Group A, South Korea appeared ready to cruise past visiting China on the strength of a 3-0 lead, but Team Dragon picked up two goals in four minutes to make it interesting before falling 3-2.
Uzbekistan received a stiff challenge from underdog visitors Syria, but Ordabasy striker Alexander Geynrikh broke through in the 74th minute to lift the hosts to a 1-0 win.
Iran, too, faced nervy times at home but 11 minutes of stoppage time saw goals from Reza Ghoochannejhad (Heerenveen) and Alireza Jahanbakhsh (AZ Alkmaar) boost the Persian Stars to a 2-0 win over Qatar. The first goal was rather poor on Qatar’s goalkeeper.