Race for Asia's World Cup berth heats up with Japan, Australia in pursuit of Saudi Arabia

Japan and Australia will both be looking to move one step closer to qualifying for the 2022 FIFA World Cup on Thursday in their respective games against China PR and Vietnam. EPA/JIJI PRESS

With just ten months to go before the 2022 FIFA World Cup takes place in Qatar, Asia's representatives for the tournament have not been settled -- with the fate of several traditional heavyweights still firmly in the balance.

The situation is fairly straightforward in Group A as the leading two teams look destined to advance. Iran are currently top on 16 points and South Korea two adrift, while third-placed United Arab Emirates a further eight points behind with just four games remaining.

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The race in Group H however looks set to go down to the wire with the top three sides separated by just five points. Saudi Arabia are currently ahead of Japan and Australia but one of these teams, who all featured at the last World Cup in 2018, is destined to miss out on automatic qualification and will have to go through the playoffs.

Ahead of Match Day 7 of the final round of Asian qualifiers for Qatar 2022 on Thursday, we take a look at the major talking points.

Potential Azmoun absence alleviated by return of Taremi

Iran's quest to book their place at the World Cup against Iraq suffered a blow with star striker Sardar Azmoun, who recently completed a move to join Bundesliga outfit Bayer Leverkusen in the summer, likely to be absent after contracting COVID-19.

In timely fashion, Team Melli will welcome back Porto striker Mehdi Taremi, who has reconciled his differences with coach Dragan Skocic after being left out last time out.

With Taremi back to lead the line and Alireza Jahanbakhsh and Saman Ghoddos still available, Iran should still have enough firepower to see off Iraq. They will have to be careful against a team looking to issue a statement under new coach Zeljko Petrovic, who replaced Dick Advocaat in November.

Can Hwang Ui-jo carry club form over to international stage?

Considering he bagged 12 goals in 36 Ligue 1 appearances for Bordeaux last season, it is perhaps surprising that Hwang Ui-jo is not given more credit when he turns out for South Korea.

Understandably, Son Heung-min usually hogs the headlines but with the Tottenham man missing this time around, Hwang has an excellent opportunity to showcase his worth.

The powerfully-built striker has continued his good form this term with nine goals in 17 league appearances, including a hat-trick in Bordeaux's most-recent 4-3 win over Strasbourg, and will be pivotal in his side's prospects of breaking down a Lebanon defence that has conceded just six goals in as many qualifiers.

Japan, Australia cannot afford slip-ups in must-win ties

On paper, Japan and Australia should have no issues picking up three points on Thursday against China PR and Vietnam respectively, given the latter two currently occupy the bottom two berths in Group B.

With second-placed Japan ahead of the Australians by a point, the pressure will be on both teams to stay in the hunt especially with games against each other -- and leaders Saudi Arabia -- still to come.

The Samurai Blue will nonetheless be without Celtic trio Kyogo Furuhashi, Reo Hatate and Yosuke Ideguchi. Daizen Maeda is the only player from the Scottish giants being called up. Meanwhile, Australia will be aware that they faced stern resistance in their last meeting against minnows Vietnam and ultimately had to grind out a narrow 1-0 win courtesy of Rhyan Grant's winner.

Will Saudi Arabia continue their resurgence in 2022?

The first international window of the year offers Saudi Arabia an immediate opportunity to prove that last year's fine displays were no fluke.

Having initially been expected to be the third-best team in Group B, the Green Falcons showed they mean business by beating Japan in October, before a 0-0 draw against Australia ensured they remain the only team unbeaten in the group with a healthy four-point lead at the top.

There remains a possibility that Saudi Arabia could still be overtaken by both Japan and the Socceroos, which makes it imperative that they continue to claim maximum points in games where they are expected to -- starting with Thursday's home game against Oman.