SAUDI ARABIA HEAD TO FINALS WITH A NEW BOSS
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He has now been replaced by Edgardo Bauza.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