BEIJING: Ambitious China and 2022 hosts Qatar will come out fighting as they seek to salvage their bids to reach the 2018 Russia World Cup on Thursday.
China, with one point from their two games so far, entertain war-torn Syria in Xian, while rock-bottom Qatar have it all to do against Son Heung-Min’s South Korea.
Asian champions Australia have strolled through their first two games but it hasn’t been plain sailing for the region’s other World Cup regulars.
Japan, stunned 2-1 by UAE in their first game, hit back by beating Thailand and they will be strong favorites when they take on Iraq in Saitama.
South Korea were surprisingly held 0-0 by Syria in their second outing but they will be expected to blow a giant hole in Qatar’s World Cup bid in Suwon.
Qatar are scrambling to reach their first World Cup before they host the tournament in 2022, but a third straight defeat would leave their chances remote.
They are also dealing with internal turmoil after Jose Daniel Carreno was sacked and replaced earlier this month with fellow Uruguayan Jorge Fossati.
“I believe that Qatar can qualify. It will be very, very difficult but I am optimistic,” said the 63-year-old Fossati, before flying to South Korea.
The top two in each of the six-strong Groups A and B will book their places in Russia, while the two third-placed teams head into a play-off series.
China have set their sights on bringing the World Cup back to Asia by 2030, but first they want to add to their sole, and goalless, appearance at the tournament in 2002.
Australia top Group B on goal difference from Saudi Arabia, with both teams on a maximum six points—ensuring a fervent atmosphere when they meet in Jeddah.
But defender Ryan McGowan said the Socceroos, who include players based in England, Germany and Spain, can deal with the pressure of a packed-out Saudi crowd.
“If you look at where most of the boys play, we are playing in front of big crowds and intimidating crowds every single week,” he told the Socceroos website.
“We enjoy that, we embrace it and it’s better for us to play in stadiums that are packed and hostile than playing in front of no one.”
South Korea’s manager Uli Stielike will be hoping for a positive response from Tottenham Hotspur star Son after he criticized his “problematic” behavior.
Son has been in electric form for his club but no-nonsense Stielike said he needed to be careful after reacting petulantly to being substituted in the 3-2 win over China.
Neighbors Japan has lost Takashi Usami and Yoshinori Muto to injury, adding to their woes after what has been an unconvincing qualifying campaign so far.
Coach Vahid Halilhodzic has called up winger Manabu Saito as the third-placed Asian champions look to close the gap on Australia and Saudi Arabia in Group B.