Japan under pressure in Asian World Cup qualification
SEOUL, South Korea (AP) On a night of big games in Asia, Japan will be under the most pressure as a defeat to Syria in their 2018 World Cup qualifier on Thursday would cast doubt on its chances of making it to Russia.
Only the eight group winners in the second round of Asian qualification are assured of a place in the third and last stage, where they will be joined by the four best second-placed finishers.
Syria has been ordered to play the game in Oman due to the political situation at home. Syria, yet to appear at a World Cup, tops the group with a maximum of nine points from three games, two ahead of Japan.
If Japan were to lose, that gap would grow with just four games remaining - and leave the 2002 co-host probably relying on being one of the best four runners-up.
''The match against Syria is going to be the most difficult and most important among the matches we had in this year,'' Japan coach Vahid Halilhodzic told a news conference in Tokyo last week.
''That's the one we must win, and if it ends up in a bad result, we won't top our group.''
The Bosnian, appointed in February, has called up his European-based stars such as Keisuke Honda of AC Milan, Borussia Dortmund's Shinji Kagawa and Shinji Okazaki of high-flying Leicester City in the English Premier League.
''Syria got off to a good start... yet we've also got excellent quality and experience, and will come out with confidence,'' Halilhodzic said. ''As long as there is a hope, we will keep winning.''
South Korea is in a slightly better position, with three wins from three. But it travels to Kuwait, level on nine points, without striker Son Heung-min.
The Tottenham forward injured his foot in his team's recent 4-1 win over Manchester City in the English Premier League. As well as Son, who scored a hat trick in an 8-0 win over Laos in September, South Korea will also be missing Lee Chung-yong of Crystal Palace and goalkeeper Kim Jin-hyeon.
''We will be fighting with the first place in the group at stake,'' coach Uli Stielike told reporters as he left Incheon International Airport. ''You could even say this match is worth six points. That's how important this is.''
Despite the injuries, the German is happy to take a depleted squad for the game in Kuwait and then back to East Asia for a friendly against Jamaica on October 13.
''Given that we will start 11 players and can use three substitutions, only 14 players will see action,'' Stielike added. ''Even with 21 players, there still will be a handful who won't get to play. So I felt 21 would be enough for this match.''
While South Korea has conceded just three goals in 16 games in 2015, there is more for Kuwait to worry about.
FIFA's executive committee agreed last month to contact the Kuwait Football Association, warning of a possible suspension in October if a new sports law in the country is implemented.
Australia will move five points clear at the top of Group B with an away win against second-place Jordan in what should be the toughest game of the stage for the Socceroos.
The Asian champion, which will be without injured captain Mile Jedinak, lost 2-1 in Amman during qualifying for the 2014 tournament. Matt McKay played in that defeat in September 2012 and does not have happy memories.
''It's going to be hostile, they are very much behind their team, very loud, parochial,'' McKay told the Football Federation Australia website. ''Most of the boys have played around the world, in big leagues they'll be able to experience it but it's just about sticking to our game plan.''
Saudi Arabia officially moved top of Group A on Monday after the four-time World Cup participant was awarded 3-0 forfeit win over Malaysia.
Last month's match just outside Kuala Lumpur was abandoned with two minutes remaining due to crowd disturbances, with Saudi Arabia leading 2-1 at the time.
Bert van Marwijk's team can extend its two-point lead over the United Arab Emirates to five when the two teams meet in Jeddah on Thursday.
Two high-profile coaches meet in Muscat. Paul Le Guen's Oman and Carlos Queiroz's Iran are level on seven points in a Group D that is wide open. Elsewhere, North Korea could potentially move six points clear in Group H if it defeats the Philippines in Pyongyang and Uzbekistan loses in Bahrain.