SINGAPORE (Reuters) – The combined second round qualifying draw for 2018 World Cup and 2019 Asian Cup took place in Malaysia on Tuesday. Here is a breakdown of Groups E-H.
Four-times Asian champions Japan will be delighted with their Group E draw, with the scrap for second an open contest amongst the much weaker four.
Syria look best placed to take the runners-up spot after some decent recent results, including wins over Jordan and Malaysia, but the war has ravaged the sport in the country.
Singapore have stuttered badly under Bernd Stange, but did beat the Syrians 2-1 at home in Asian Cup qualifying last year and will be confident of beating Cambodia, the joint worst ranked side at 179 in the Asian draw.
Afghanistan were 2013 South Asian champions and should battle Singapore for third spot in the group.
Southeast Asian champions Thailand will be eyeing a first World Cup finals appearance after being handed a kind draw.
Their talented young team, with the creative Chanathip Songkrasin dubbed Messi Jay providing the passes for deadly striker Teerasil Dangda, showed in winning the Suzuki Cup last year they have the measure of local rivals Indonesia and Vietnam.
Iraq, Asian champions in 2011, finished fourth in the Asian Cup but local politics often hampers qualifying campaigns and whether the same squad and coaching staff continue their good work remains to be seen.
Their home matches are likely to be played in Qatar.
Vietnam should push for third, with little expected of Taiwan, while Indonesian may not even take part following threats of a ban from FIFA over a dispute that has halted the domestic league.
South Korea face a return trip to Lebanon, scene of an embarrassing 1-0 defeat in the 2014 World Cup qualifiers.
That Koreans staggered through that campaign to make Brazil but should have little trouble this time with the Lebanese having gone backwards following a match-fixing scandal that broke not long after that famous win.
The Koreans scrapped a 1-0 win over Kuwait en route to finishing runners-up in the Asian Cup and would probably have preferred to have skipped another long trip to the Middle East.
Kuwait should have too much for Lebanon, while Laos will just be hoping to keep the scores respectable having lost 9-0 to the Koreans in 2000.
Myanmar should fair slightly better but are hampered by not being able to play home matches after crowd trouble in the 2014 qualifying campaign.
Uzbekistan and Bahrain will fight it out for top spot in an even group where even the lowest ranked side Yemen will feel confident of taking points against the pool’s best.
North Korea will prove a problematic away trip for all with their stout defensive play resulting in a strong home record but whether they have enough confidence to attack on the road remains a question over their qualifying hopes.
Yemen will be playing home matches on neutral territory once again but are capable of strong results, having held Bahrain, Iraq, Kuwait and Qatar to draws last year.
Philippines may come unstuck against sterner opposition than they have faced in recent years.
Uzbekistan will be hoping after several near misses they can finally make a World Cup appearance but much will depend on the ageing Server Djeparov to provide the creative spark for a talented if mentally frail side.
(Reporting by Patrick Johnston; Editing by Julian Linden)