Qualifying for the 2018 World Cup is about at its end, and in Asian, the action over the course of the last two match days is going to be brutally intense. There are still eight teams who are vying for four spots to the World Cup and one spot in the intercontinental playoff, and these last two matches held at the end of August and the beginning of September will separate the teams.
One team that has nothing to worry about is Iran. The Iranians are off to the World Cup for the second straight time for the first time in their history after winning Group A. Iran still hasn't been beaten in eight matches in the group stage.
The other automatic qualifying spot out of Group A is very much so up for grabs. South Korea is in the slot right now with 13 points from its first eight matches, but Uzbekistan and Syria still have a chance to get into the mix as well.
The match of most importance is clearly going to be the one in Tashkent between Uzbekistan and South Korea on the final day of qualifying. South Korea will have played against Iran at home six days earlier, while Uzbekistan will have just come home from a visit to China.
These two teams played to a 2-1 South Korean victory in November, a match that was won just five minutes from time thanks to a Koo Ja-cheol goal that saved the hosts. Little did we know at the time, but that might end up being the difference between reaching the World Cup and not.
Should both Uzbekistan and South Korea fail to get maximum points from their first matches before playing against each other, the door will still firmly be open for Syria. The Syrians will finish up with the toughest match in the group at Iran, but they do get Qatar at home before that. There's a real chance that they'll be on terms with Uzbekistan by the time that last match rolls around, and goal differential could end up being the difference should South Korea finish second.
Group B already effectively has its three teams who will advance. The question is which of the three of Japan, Saudi Arabia or Australia ultimately has to face the home-and-home fourth round series against the third place finisher from Group A just to get to the Intercontinental playoff.
Japan is in the driver's seat right now with 17 points through eight matches. That said, it also has the hardest route left to qualify, having to play at home against Australia and away to Saudi Arabia. The Aussies should get all three points at home against Thailand on the last match day, and if that's the case, it's probably a point in Tokyo away from qualifying directly for the World Cup.
Regardless as to what happens in Group B, the third place team figures to be the favorite over the third place finisher over the Group A third place team. That said, the team that advances from that point will take on the fourth place team in CONCACAF in the intercontinental playoff and won't be favored in the affair in all likelihood. The best hope for the rest of the teams in Asia for a fifth spot in the World Cup would be taking on Panama or one of the three lesser teams in CONCACAF's last round of qualifying.
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