SAUDI ARA­BIA HEAD TO FI­NALS WITH A NEW BOSS

World Soccer - - Road to russia - John Duer­den

If the des­ti­na­tion is more im­por­tant than the jour­ney, no­body told Asia as the fi­nal stage of World Cup qual­i­fi­ca­tion pro­vided ex­cite­ment, drama and re­crim­i­na­tion.

The con­ti­nent has now filled its four au­to­matic al­lo­ca­tions for Rus­sia 2018, with con­ti­nen­tal cham­pi­ons Aus­tralia miss­ing out af­ter fail­ing to fin­ish in the top two of the six-team Group B.

Away to Ja­pan in the penul­ti­mate round of games, ei­ther team could se­cure a top-two spot with a vic­tory, but in the end it was the hosts who were cel­e­brat­ing, win­ning 2-0 de­spite leav­ing Keisuke Honda, Shinji Ka­gawa and Shinji Okazaki on the bench.

That left one au­to­matic spot left for the Soc­ceroos and Saudi Ara­bia to fight over five days later.

With the two sides level on points, the Mid­dle Eastern­ers had a bet­ter goal dif­fer­ence but Aus­tralia were con­fi­dent they could make up the deficit by thrash­ing Thailand in Mel­bourne. But even though they had more than 40 at­tempts on goal, Ange Postecoglou’s team could only man­age a 2-1 win – which meant a Saudi vic­tory at home to Ja­pan would see Aus­tralia fin­ish third.

Postecoglou bore the brunt of the crit­i­cism in Aus­tralia, with the main ac­cu­sa­tion be­ing that he had been ex­per­i­ment­ing when he should have been fo­cused firmly on get­ting to Rus­sia.

Fans in Saudi Ara­bia were far hap­pier with their more prag­matic boss, Bert Van Mar­wijk, as they cel­e­brated a re­turn to the World Cup for the first time since 2006. Yet in­cred­i­bly, just one week later, the Dutch­man was head­ing home when ne­go­ti­a­tions over a new con­tract with the Saudi FA broke down. The or­gan­i­sa­tion

wanted a change in his coach­ing staff and re­quired Van Mar­wijk to spend more time in the coun­try to mon­i­tor play­ers and pre­pare his squad.

He has now been re­placed by Edgardo Bauza. Sacked by Ar­gentina in April, the 59-year-old was ap­pointed by the United Arab Emi­rates in May and is now go­ing to Rus­sia – as­sum­ing he lasts that long.

If Postecoglou wants to join him, Aus­tralia will need to get past Syria in the third-place play-off and then beat the fourth-place side from the CONCACAF re­gion in Novem­ber.

Syria were just a goal away from au­to­matic qual­i­fi­ca­tion them­selves be­fore set­tling for third place.

Iran dom­i­nated Group A and qual­i­fied with two games to spare, but Syria took an early lead in Tehran and were on course for Rus­sia un­til Sar­dar Az­moun scored twice for the hosts. An equaliser from Omar Al Soma put the men from Da­m­as­cus into the play-off. And for a team that had been un­able to play at home for ob­vi­ous rea­sons – and, un­til the last two or three games, were miss­ing key play­ers due to po­lit­i­cal rea­sons – to even fin­ish third was im­pres­sive.

South Korea took sec­ond place in what was a far from im­pres­sive cam­paign in which they col­lected just 15 points from their 10 games. Just two of those came away from home and that form cost coach Uli Stielike his job in June, with two games re­main­ing.

Shin Tae-yong came in and did just enough, with goal­less draws at home to Iran and away to Uzbek­istan see­ing the Kore­ans scrape through to a ninth suc­ces­sive tour­na­ment.

For Uzbek­istan, it was a fa­mil­iar feel­ing of frus­tra­tion. A win at home to South Korea would have taken the for­mer Soviet Repub­lic to a first-ever World Cup, but, af­ter fail­ing yet again, they will have to live with the la­bel of be­ing Asia’s chok­ers for some years to come.

Saudi Ara­bia cel­e­brated a re­turn to the World Cup for the first time since 2006

Suc­cess...Saudi Ara­bia play­ers cel­e­brate af­ter beat­ing Ja­pan

Through...Yo­suke Ideguchi scores Ja­pan’s sec­ond goal against Aus­tralia

Chok­ers...Vi­taliy Denisov (right) and Uzbek­istan fail yet again

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