Five Things we Learned from the Asian Qualifiers

As the midway point of the second round of AFC qualifiers for the FIFA World Cup 26™ passes, 46 nations battling for eight direct spots at the global showpiece have been whittled down to 31 remaining hopefuls.

Australia, Iraq, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates have all reeled off four straight wins to storm into the third round alongside IR Iran and Uzbekistan, while Japan have a perfect record of three wins from as many matches.

At the other end of the spectrum, Chinese Taipei, Hong Kong, Nepal, Pakistan and Turkmenistan have all bowed out of contention.

With two matches remaining in this phase, attention now turns to who else may rise or fall as FIFA takes a look at the state of qualification in the world’s most populous continent.

Heavyweights assert their dominance

With two matches to spare, Asia’s heavyweights have flexed their muscles. Six of the top ten AFC nations on the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking (IR Iran, Australia, Qatar, Iraq, the United Arab Emirates and Uzbekistan) are already safely through to the third round. The remaining four (Japan, Korea Republic, Saudi Arabia and Jordan) will join them with wins on the penultimate matchday on 6 June as the continent’s big guns continue to impress.

Stars shine

It was raining goals across the two recently completed matchdays, with 106 scored in the 35 fixtures, and it was little surprise to see some of the continent’s biggest stars on the scoresheet.

Braces in back-to-back matches for Chinese forward Wu Lei and a hattrick for dynamic Jordanian winger Mousa Al-Tamari were the undoubted highlights but Akram Afif, Almoez Ali, Son Heungmin, Eldor Shomurodov, Sardar Azmoun, Aymen Hussein, Salem Al-Dawsari and Craig Goodwin all the found the back of the net to help lead their respective nations to important wins.

Indonesia on the rise

Coach Shin Taeyong has undertaken a radical overhaul of the Indonesian squad, tapping in extensively to the nation’s diaspora, and it has paid immediate dividends. Two of the recently naturalised players, defender Jay Idzes and striker Ragnar Oratmangoen, were on target in a crucial 3-0 win over Vietnam in Hanoi that moved the nation to the brink of qualification for the third round.

Defender Nathan Tjoe-A-On and midfielder Thom Haye both acquired Indonesian citizenship this month and were thrown straight into the starting XI, while Rafael Struick and Justin Hubner are others to have been naturalised in the past 12 months who also played key roles.

The move may not be popular with some fans but the results are clear to see, and if the coach can continue to blend the new arrivals with some promising, local talents, Indonesia stand a good chance of reaching their first World Cup since way back in 1938, when they were known as the Dutch East Indies.

Iraq emerge as a serious force

Another nation that has seen the benefits of casting the talent net far and wide is Iraq. They have followed up some impressive showings at the AFC Asian Cup with a dominant start to World Cup qualifying, highlighted by this week’s 5-0 thrashing of the Philippines in Manila.

Finally able to play back at home, in the magnificent Basra Stadium, undoubtedly helps, but it’s an emerging crop of technically outstanding midfielders and forwards that has propelled the recent success.

The silky Amir Al-Ammari pins things together in the middle, allowing the creativity of 20-year-olds Ali Jassim, Zidane Iqbal and Youssef Amyn to flourish, while the old warhorse up front, Aymen Hussein, is, in an understated way, one of Asia’s most deadly finishers.

This is a nation seriously on the rise and one that is looking good to return to the World Cup for the first time since 1986.

Minnows rise as five fall

While it may be the end of the road for a quintet of the continent’s smaller nations, others punched above their weight and remain in with a chance of reaching the third round.

Afghanistan pulled off the biggest surprise as Sharif Mukhammad, one of four players without a club in the squad, converted a late penalty in a 2-1 win against India that keeps them outside the top two only on goal difference.

Although they couldn’t back it up at home, Thailand’s point in Seoul in a 1-1 draw with Korea Republic could prove to be vital, while Kyrgyz Republic, ranked 104, put Chinese Taipei to the sword in their two matches to move to the head of the Group D standings.

Tajikistan put in a strong showing in a 1-1 draw at home to six-time World Cup finalists Saudi Arabia, while Palestine picked up back-to-back wins against Bangladesh to move within a point of reaching the third round.

Only a dozen (current) AFC nations have reached the World Cup. But with an expanded tournament offering more spots, there could be a host of Asian debutants set to grace the global stage in 2026, which would be a major positive for the continent as a whole.

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