KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) — Japan and Australia have been grouped together along with Saudi Arabia, China, Oman and Vietnam in the final round of Asian qualifying for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.
South Korea, seeking a 10th consecutive World Cup appearance, is the only team from the eastern zone in Group A, which also includes Iran, United Arab Emirates, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.
The 12 teams for the final round were seeded in pairs before being divided into two groups of six during the official draw conducted at the Asian Football Confederation headquarters in Kuala Lumpur on Thursday.
The final round of qualifying is set to kick off Sept. 2 and culminate on March 29, 2022, with each team playing five home and five away matches.
The winner and runner-up in each group will advance automatically to the World Cup and the third place teams will meet to determine who proceeds to an intercontinental playoff for one of the last places at Qatar.
Japan and Australia were the only teams to go through the disrupted second round with a perfect record of eight wins, although the Australians had to play all but one of their games away because of restrictions in place during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Japan is aiming for a seventh consecutive World Cup appearance, while Australia and Saudi Arabia have each qualified five times before. China, which overcame a slow start to place second in its group in the second round — advancing as one of the five best runners-up — hasn’t been to the World Cup stage since 2002, when the tournament was hosted in Asia for the first time.
Oman and Vietnam are trying to qualify for the first time.
Australia scored 28 goals and conceded two, playing its last four games from June 3-15 in Kuwait when the AFC decided to play each group at a central venue because of travel restrictions.
“What we learnt in the second phase where we had to play seven out of eight games away from home, and we won all eight games, has given the players a lot of belief and confidence when they play away from home,” Australia coach Graham Arnold said in a streamed interview following the draw. “We’ve shown in that second phase a lot of resilience … so wherever we play we expect to win every game.”
The Australians haven’t beaten Japan since 2010, and the teams are meeting in the last round of Asian qualifying for the fourth straight World Cup.
Iran and South Korea are also in the same group for the fourth straight World Cup qualifying tournament.
The teams drew 1-1 in both games ahead of the 2010 World Cup, Iran had 1-0 wins at home and away in the 2014 qualifiers, and a 1-0 and a draw in qualifying for 2018.
South Korea coach Paulo Bento said the group was difficult but balanced.
“The last two qualifiers, 2014 and 2018, the (South Korean) team had a lot of difficulties to qualify,” Bento said. “That is a good experience for us. We learned from what happened in the past.”
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