After three years of breathtaking action in the qualifiers of the AFC Asian Cup – UAE 2019, a mere four places remain up for grabs, setting the stage for a nail-biting finish in the battle to clinch the top 24 spots in the United Arab Emirates on the final match day on March 27, 2018.
Defending champions Australia, China, Iraq, Iran, Japan, South Korea, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Thailand, Uzbekistan and hosts United Arab Emirates – were the first 12 teams to qualify directly for the final competition after progressing to the 2018 FIFA World Cup – Asian Qualifiers Final Round.
The final round of the Qualifiers produced some spectacular performances, but the riveting action meant teams were left to wait until match day four before the cast grew bigger. Convincing victories from Palestine and Oman over Bhutan and Maldives respectively sealed their spots from Group D as India joined the West Asians after beating Macau 4-1 to maintain their perfect record in Group A.
Match day five witnessed the biggest shift with another five teams securing their spots. Lebanon’s narrow 1-0 win over Hong Kong ensured their qualification from Group B, while Jordan and Vietnam ensured their safe passage from Group C at the expense of Cambodia and Afghanistan. Bahrain’s emphatic 3-0 away victory over Singapore and Turkmenistan’s hard-fought 2-1 home victory over a resilient Chinese Taipei side guaranteed a top-two finish in Group E.
With 20 teams securing the coveted spots, all eyes will be transfixed on the final match day of the qualifiers on March 27, 2018. Just seven teams from three groups remain in contention for the four available places amongst Asia’s elite in the UAE.
With India having booked their places in the UAE, the battle for the final spot in Group A looks set to be between Myanmar and Kyrgyz Republic – who interestingly are the only two sides to have played one less match than the rest of the teams in the competition.
Kyrgyz Republic, who occupy second place – two points ahead of Myanmar – will be hoping to solidify their position when the two sides face off in a scintillating encounter in Bishkek on March 22, 2017. Failure to snatch all three points will set up a nail-biting end on the final match day as the Central Asians prepare to contain a spirited Indian side eager to maintain their unbeaten record with Myanmar playing hosts to Macau.
Back-to-back victories over Malaysia have propelled North Korea into a commanding position to join Lebanon in the UAE. The East Asians have a three-point advantage over Hong Kong and all eyes will be on the contest in Pyongyang, with Hong Kong well aware that nothing less than a victory will keep their hopes alive for a place in the UAE.
Perhaps the most complex and interesting group – the only among the six groups without a single frontrunner and all to play for on the final match day. Three teams – Philippines, Yemen and Tajikistan – are vying for the top two spots, with the Southeast Asians holding a slender two-point advantage over their rivals.
The Central Asians will be hoping to avenge their agonising 4-3 defeat when they travel to the Philippines on match day six but the Azkals will be inspired to create history, with victory guaranteeing their first-ever appearance at the AFC Asian Cup. Yemen, meanwhile, will be setting their sights on the three crucial points when they host Nepal, who despite being eliminated managed a spirited 0-0 draw when the sides met in Kathmandu last June.
The draw for the AFC Asian Cup – UAE 2019 will take place in April 2018.