China will kick off their last campaign to qualify the 2018 FIFA World Cup finals with an away game against bitter rival South Korea on Sept. 1 as the draw for the final round of Asian qualifiers unveiled here on Tuesday.
Twelve teams were drawn into two groups to play under a round-robin format. The top two finishers of each group qualify directly, and the two third finishers will vie for a chance to play the fourth finisher of the fifth round of the CONCACAF qualifiers for a spot at the global finals.
Iran, South Korea, Uzbekistan, China, Qatar and Syria are listed in Group A. Australia, Japan, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Iraq and Thailand are in Group B. The final round will be held from Sept. 1, 2016 to Sept. 5, 2017.
In the group stage before the final round, China had almost been eliminated, which forced the Chinese Football Association to sack French head coach Alain Perrin. Coached by Gao Hongbo, China beat Qatar 2-0 at home to finish second in Group C and luckily became one of the four best runners-up of eight groups, together with eight winners, to advance, thanks to a string of stunning results in other groups.
After today’s draw, Gao Hongbo played low key, saying that either group made no difference to China. “The most important thing is to do our best. After all, we haven’t been in the final round of World Cup qualifiers for more than a decade,” he said.
The head-to-head results show that South Korea and Iran boast overwhelming advantage over China which almost equal with Uzbekistan and Qatar and only lead over Syria. Meanwhile, as the host of the 2022 World Cup, Qatar is no doubt to play all out to qualify the 2018 edition. So far, none of World Cup host fails to enter the finals before its hosting.
“Iran is a tough opponent with a lot of excellent players. We also need to get well prepared to visit South Korea. We need to have good performances and tactics while facing other opponents,” Gao said.
As all the opponents in Group A are physically tough, Gao joked, “Maybe we have to overcome hardness with softness.”
Ou Chuliang, China’s assistant coach, believed that as long as players did their best, the result wouldn’t be bad.
The one-year-long final round definitely creates some problems as most of the Chinese national team players have to play in domestic league, cup, AFC Champions League and the World Cup qualifiers.
“We will make plans according to the schedule, including the decision on home cities. We will also collect information as much as possible. Besides, we hope to get along well with all clubs as they may need to make certain sacrifice,” Ou said.
South Korea, the traditional Asian soccer powerhouse, is growing in confidence after reaching the final of the 2015 AFC Asian Cup.
“We played exceptionally well in 2015 so we’re full of confidence. I’m very optimistic that we’ll make it to Russia,” South Korea’s coach Uli Stielike said.
South Korea have played in nine World Cups and reached the semifinals in 2002 while co-hosting the tournament with Japan, which remains the best run by an Asian team in World Cup.
Iran’s highly-regarded Portuguese coach Carlos Queiroz predicted that South Korea, Japan and Australia would qualify for the World Cup in Russia.
“South Korea, Japan and Australia will go to the World Cup. The last one spot will be vied by Iran, China and Uzbekistan,” he said.
Queiroz said playing against China would be difficult as the team was making huge improvements.
Qatar’s head coach Jose Daniel Carreno said he was pleased to play in Group A.
“Our goal is to be the best four teams and qualify for the World Cup,” he said.
Australian coach Ange Postecoglou said the challenging draw would hone the Socceroos ahead of its bigger target.
“As Champions of Asia we will show due respect to all countries,” he said, “But (we’re) focused on continuing our journey that has aspirations greater than simply qualifying for the World Cup.”