We’re back at it again with AFC Round 3 Preview.. The final round will send 4 teams directly to World Cup 2018 in Russia. There was not all that much drama in the 2nd round, as we correctly got 10 of 12 teams to advance. The gap between the best in Asia and the worst is still very large. It would not be surprising in the least to see AFC revisit the format decision ahead of World Cup 2022.
But the third round of qualifying should be much more exciting and competitive. 2 groups of 6 ensure that there is high quality in every group. Our point projections will show just that. Teams will play their first two matches in September.
And spoiler alert: the 4 teams we projected from AFC over a year ago are the same 4 we project to make it now.
Korea Republic, Iran, Qatar, Uzbekistan, China PR, and Syria make up Group A. It certainly appears that this group has a greater chance to send a new team to the dance. Korea Republic looks the favorite, and we give them almost an 82% chance to reach the World Cup. That’s high.
After that, things get a bit dicier. We have Iran with about a 50/50 shot to make it, with Qatar and Uzbekistan hot on their heels. There is about a 2/3 chance of one of Qatar/Uzbekistan/China/Syria making it directly! Even still, the playoff spot is wide open in this group. No one team has even a 25% chance of finishing 3rd. It’s that close. Qatar did prove, in our minds, that they’re better than China in qualifying.
Iran hosts Qatar and is at Uzbekistan to start. Those are their two biggest competitors, and the September matches will certainly set the tone for the rest of qualifying. We’re going to stick with South Korea and Iran to qualify directly, with Qatar finishing 3rd and advancing to the playoffs.
Japan, Australia, UAE, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Thailand make up Group B. Iraq and Thailand are solid teams, but they both benefited from the Indonesia suspension. Their matches against the worst team in the group, Chinese Taipei, counted towards their 2nd place total. As a result, they were both able to get through. We think they’ll run into some more difficult opposition here.
UAE and Saudi Arabia also came through the same group, and surprisingly for us, Saudi Arabia topped the group. We think these two will be battling it out yet again to get to the playoffs. Qualifying may not have taught us, as we still think UAE emerges, but it should be very close.
We see Japan and Australia as way too strong to be in danger of missing a direct qualifying spot. Combined, in Round 2, they had 14 wins, 1 draw, and 1 loss, with a +52 goal differential. That’s absolutely unbelievable. We give each of Japan and Australia over an 80% chance to qualify directly for the World Cup. There’s only a 5% chance either doesn’t at least reach the playoffs.
As indicated above, we’re banking on Qatar v. United Arab Emirates to play the 4th place CONCACAF team. We think it’ll be Qatar to ultimately emerge and give the CONCACAF representative a real challenge.
It’s been a couple months, but looking back on Round 2, it’s hard to view the round as anything but a complete failure. Here’s an exercise.
Step 1: Exclude Syria, Thailand, Iraq, and Uzbekistan
Step 2: Exclude Saudi Arabia v. UAE matches and China PR v. Qatar matches
Of the remaining 8 teams, they combined for 48 wins, 7 draws, and 1 loss. In these 56 games, these 8 teams scored 210 goals. They conceded 12. Yes, these teams combined for a goal differential of +198 in a single World Cup Qualifying round.
The rest of the continent is not on the same level, and having a massive group stage produced little drama, and a lot of poor quality football. It was good to have matches against bigger teams in World Cup Qualifying, but the Asian Cup 2019 qualifying and 3rd round of World Cup Qualifying should produce much higher quality matches.
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