The penultimate round of World Cup qualifiers in Groups A and B take place on Thursday, with Saudi Arabia the closest of the Arab nations to making it to Qatar 2022.
But there is still plenty of interest for the other regional nations. While the top two teams from both groups qualify automatically, there is still hope for those two teams who finish third. First they meet in an Asian play-off, with the winner going on to meet a team from another confederation for a final qualifying showdown. There is still much to play for. Here are five talking points about the Arab teams who are coming to the end of the Road to Qatar.
1. Fortune favoring the UAE
With Iran and South Korea already securing the automatic places in Group A, it is all about the battle for third. At the moment, the UAE are three points clear of Lebanon in fourth and four ahead of their Iraqi opponents and while they have not really impressed so far, as long as the Whites don’t do anything silly, all should be well and a play-off, perhaps with Australia, awaits.
There are factors in their favor. The first is that the game is not going to be held in Baghdad after FIFA switched venues last week. This may be unfortunate for Iraq who were looking forward to playing a first competitive match in their capital for 20 years. It is good for the away team who do not have to contend with an emotional and passionate home crowd. The trip to Riyadh should prove to be much more gentle.
And it’s not just that in their favor. Lebanon’s game with Syria will finish before this one kicks off. If Lebanon lose then the UAE will know that a point against Iraq will be enough. New coach Rodolfo Arruabarrena has been getting to know his players — there are a couple of injuries but at this point everyone has injuries — in Dubai over the past few days and given the situation: the points advantage, venue and timing all points to a good start for the Argentine.
2. Lebanon can still pull off the impossible
It has been a campaign of what might have been for Lebanon. The Cedars may not have won many friends with their style of football against the bigger boys in the group — sit deep, make it hard for the opposition and do what it takes to try and get a point or more — but given the issues in the country, the fact that they have been competitive all the way through is a testament to the spirit and hard work of the team.
Those two home games to Iran and the UAE in November will live long in the memory when conceding late goals cost them four points and a clear lead in third.
As it is, Lebanon are not out of the running for the play-offs. Victory in Syria will keep their hopes alive ahead of a tricky trip to Tehran. Only three points will do on Thursday and the coach Ivan Hasek has to play a different way and take the game to the opposition.
3. Iraq’s new boss needs to remove shackles
While the switch from Baghdad to Riyadh will not have gone unappreciated in Abu Dhabi, there is understandable anger in Iraq. There is a desire to move forward from the insecurity of the past and hosting a big qualifier in the capital for the first time since 2001 would have been a major symbolic move.
There are obvious football reasons too. This qualification campaign has been a disappointment and, even with the disadvantage of playing away, not winning any of the eight games so far is not good enough for a team that won the 2007 Asian Cup. The Iraq Football Association has not helped the situation in the past few months with some of the decisions it has made regarding the coaching situation and other issues. That debate can start next week, however.
Caretaker boss Abdul Ghani Shahad has been in place just a month but has nothing to lose. Iraq have scored just four goals in eight games and the former international defender should take off the shackles and let Iraq play. It can’t be much worse than what has happened before.
4. Syria must take the chance to move forward.
It feels like a long time ago when Syria reached the play-offs for the 2018 World Cup and pushed Australia into extra-time in the second leg of what was a tense and exciting game. This time around, just two points from eight games tells its own story and means, of course, that there is no hope of qualification.
Still, there is more than just pride at stake. This is a time to think about the 2023 Asian Cup, for which the Qasioun Eagles have already qualified, and getting as high up the rankings as possible in order to achieve a favorable group in China next year.
There are some familiar names missing from the team, veterans such as Omar Al-Somah, Omar Khribin and Khaled Haj Othman are out, for various reasons, which gives a chance to younger colleagues like Yassin Samia to show what they can do. It is time for a new generation to stake their claim.
5. Oman have a chance to go out with bang
Oman started the stage with a bang and a famous win in Japan. It was always going to be difficult to sustain that, given that, as well as the Samurai Blue, Saudi Arabia and Australia are also present in Group B. At the moment, the Reds are in fourth with eight points, three ahead of China, their final day opponents, and five clear of Vietnam, where Oman are next. The goal has to be to take at least four points from those remaining two games and record a clear fourth-placed finish, one that would reflect the team’s progress and exploits in the group so far.
The trip to Hanoi on Thursday will be tough. The hosts are desperate not to finish in last place and will see this game as a great opportunity to take three points. Oman are without Issam Al-Subhi, who scored that goal in Japan, but a similarly smart performance can see the team come away with at least a point from Vietnam and ready to beat an understrength and struggling Chinese team at home. It will stand the team in good stead for future tests.
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