Iran targets World Cup spot; China and Qatar target survival
SEOUL, South Korea (AP) Iran could become just the second team to advance through qualifying for the 2018 World Cup - after Brazil - while China and Qatar could be officially eliminated from contention in Asian qualifiers this week.
Led by former Real Madrid and Portugal coach Carlos Queiroz, Iran has appeared at four World Cups but never managed back-to-back qualifications.
Should Iran, four points clear at the top of Group A, defeat Uzbekistan in Tehran in front of what should be a capacity crowd of 100,000 on Monday night, then it will secure a spot with two games remaining.
''We know there is still work to do but we have worked hard to get in a good position,'' Queiroz, who took the job in 2011, told The Associated Press. ''We don't always have the same preparations that other big Asian countries have so it will be a great achievement to make it to the World Cup again.''
Iran has conceded just six goals in seven games in the third round of qualification, from which the top two teams in both groups get automatic spots at Russia 2018. The two third-place finishers enter a playoff series.
''It will not be easy against Uzbekistan but we hope we can do it,'' Queiroz said. ''We have been ranked as the No. 1 Asian team by FIFA for over four years and we have more players in Europe than ever before.''
On Tuesday, South Korea can take a step to a ninth successive World Cup with a win in Qatar.
The Taeguk Warriors sit in second, four points below Iran and one above Uzbekistan, but a series of indifferent performances has raised the possibility of missing out on the World Cup for the first time since 1982.
Against Qatar - the recent diplomatic rift in the region meant that Korea traveled from United Arab Emirates to Doha via Kuwait on Saturday - defeat would see the team's German coach Uli Stielike come under increasing pressure.
A 0-0 draw with Iraq in a friendly last week resulted in harsh criticism of the South Koreans, who had no shots on target.
''The result was not good against Iraq but the atmosphere in the team is fine,'' Son Heung-min, who scored 21 goals in the English Premier League season with Tottenham Hotspur. ''I also did not play well against Iraq but we are preapring well for Qatar and we all know how important it is.''
Qatar, host of the 2022 World Cup, is last in Group A and already unable to finish in the top two in the group. Failure to win will officially end its already slim hopes of taking the playoff spot.
In the other Group A game on Tuesday, Syria hosts China in the neutral venue of Malaysia. Syria has an outside chance of third place and is four points behind Uzbekistan.
China must win or its faint hopes of automatic qualification will end, and even the play-offs could be out of reach.
''It is totally within our capabilities to defeat Syria,'' China coach Marcello Lippi said after his team thrashed the Philippines 8-1 in a friendly last week. ''If we lose to Syria both at home and away, then we deserve to be eliminated.''
Three teams are level atop Group B with 16 points after Australia defeated Saudi Arabia 3-2 last week.
That gives Japan a chance to move three points clear in top spot if it beats Iraq in a game played on neutral turf in Tehran.
Japan will be without Shinji Kagawa of Borussia Dortmund who was injured in a warm-up 1-1 draw against Syria, and coach Vahid Halilhodzic is expecting a tough time in Tehran.
''Everyone in Japan thinks that qualification for the World Cup is going to be no problem,'' Halilhodzic said. ''But I'll warn everyone, it is not going to be easy.''
In the other Group B match Thailand, already out of contention, is looking for a first win in this stage at home to United Arab Emirates.