World Cup 2014 Outlook: Asia
Nations eliminated: Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bahrain, Cambodia, China, Chinese Taipei, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Iraq, Kuwait, Kyrgystan, Laos, Lebanon, Macau, Malaysia, Maldives, Mongolia, Myanmar, Nepal, North Korea, Pakistan, Palestine, Philippines, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Syria, Tajikistan, Timor Leste, Thailand, Turkmenistan, UAE, Vietnam, Yemen.
Nations in the hunt (FIFA ranking): South Korea (40), Australia (47), Uzbekistan (58), Iran (67), Jordan (75), Oman (101).
Nations qualified (FIFA ranking): Japan (32).
All teams play each of the other teams in their group home and away. The top two teams in each group make World Cup 2014. The third-placed teams in each group have a playoff for the right to a playoff against the fifth team from CONMEBOL.
1. Japan. The great constant of Asian football. Since reaching its first World Cup in 1998, it has never missed out, and qualified with ease this time around. Add in the fact that it's won three of the last four Asian Cups and it becomes clear that Japan is leading the Asian surge as it looks to take over as football's third continent. Alberto Zaccheroni's side is a fluent, technically accomplished attacking unit and, although it slipped up its last two matches (2-1 loss at Jordan, 1-1 home tie with Australia), qualification was long since safe -- and it had beaten Jordan 6-0 in the home match.
2. Australia. When Australia left the Oceanian Confederation to join the AFC after the 2006 World Cup, it was assumed that a brave new age was opening up, that, with regular top-level competition, it would embark on a process of inevitable improvement. Perhaps it still will, but this qualifying campaign has come as a shock. The likes of Harry Kewell, Mark Viduka and Brett Emerton are gone, and the new generation is struggling to match their achievements. Two draws against Oman and defeat in Jordan mean it goes into the final match (Tuesday against Iraq) with automatic qualification not assured.
3. Iran. Iran's efforts at qualifying are being helped by its goalkeeping coach, Dan Gaspar, who holds a U.S. passport. "It's a strange thing," he told The Blizzard. "We live in a country that we know is being suppressed by sanctions, but I don't have that sense of fear. I feel safe. I feel welcomed. I feel respected. If I wasn't listening to CNN or BBC, I would have no idea of the perception that Iran has throughout the world. Maybe we are isolated from that as a result of being football professionals, and perhaps we're not exposed to that type of political climate, but I've had no issues being a Portuguese-American."
Uzbekistan. In 2000, Uzbekistan was beaten 8-0 by Japan at the Asian Cup, but since then it has gotten better and better, reaching the semifinals of the confederational tournament two years ago. Mirjalol Kasimov, back in charge of Bunyodkor after the Luiz Felipe Scolari interregnum, has lost just three of 13 games since taking up the national reins, basing his gameplan on a solid defense. It lost its opening qualifier at home to Iran but has bounced back and made up for that defeat by wining in Tehran. Ulugbek Bakayev, the Irtysh Pavlodar forward, may not exude quite the same threat Maksym Shatskikh used to, but he performs his lone role manfully.
It will be two of Uzbekistan, Iran and South Korea qualifying automatically from Group A -- and South Korea will only be knocked out of the top two if it loses to Iran at home Tuesday and Uzbekistan beats Qatar while making up six goals in differential on the South Koreans. Uzbekistan must beat Qatar and likely needs South Korea to beat Iran to jump into second place. In Group B, Australia will get the second automatic spot behind Japan if it can beat last-place Iraq on Tuesday. Oman and Jordan, playing the other match Tuesday, are fighting for third and the playoff.
Japan, Uzbekistan, Australia and South Korea qualify. Iran goes to the playoff.