Opinion

World Cup half-term report card: Australia leading the way in Asia

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The second round of qualification for the 2022 FIFA World Cup is at the halfway stage - four down, four to go. It could not be a better time to take stock of the five Asian teams that reached the 2018 World Cup and see how they are doing.

All five have played a game less than their group rivals but some have more to do than others.

Australia

The record: Four wins out of four with 16 goals scored and one conceded.

Pros: Done the job at home with strikers filling their international boots for the first time. A potentially difficult away trip to Kuwait was sorted with the minimum of fuss and there was that hard-fought win at Jordan, a place where the team have struggled in the past. The big players are stepping up when needed.

Cons: So far so good but improvements are necessary heading into the next round. Defending is one area. Balls from wide areas seem to cause bigger problems than they should. Opponents have not made the most of their chances but stronger teams will do so. Full-backs have yet to really get going. Arnold will have to decide whether to give the backline game time together or to experiment a little.

Grade: A - Australia can start planning for the third round.

Japan

The record: Five points clear at the top, 13 goals scored and not one let in.

Pros: A new generation of Samurai Blue are coming through and showing that there is plenty of strength in depth in the country who, at least, find this level of Asian football to be a comfortable level. Takumi Minamino is really starting to find his international scoring boots and the 24 year-old could be a leading light in the Japanese attack for years to come.

Cons: The defence has not been tested and after losing 4-1 at home to Venezuela on Tuesday (a lacklustre performance which resulted in that rarest of things - a Japan team being booed off the pitch) that may be a relief. The defeat may come at a perfect time however. The stakes were low and the lessons on the need for improvement are clear. 

Grade: A - In such a comfortable position.

Saudi Arabia

The record: Two wins and two draws, the Green Falcons are a point behind leaders Uzbekistan though they have that game in hand.

Pros: In a tougher group than most especially with the presence of the Uzbeks. The late come-from-behind win in Tashkent last week was not only vital in terms of qualification but it demonstrated that there is some spirit in this team. The midfield is creating chances and if coach Herve Renard is given time and support then there is real potential.

Cons: Renard impressed as boss in charge of Morocco but still seems unsure as to what style to bring to Saudi Arabia. There have been too many individual mistakes and the team lacks a top-class striker and goalkeeper. With a foreigner-heavy domestic league, there are not many contenders coming through to challenge the more established stars.

Grade: B - Still work to do but enough for Saudi Arabia to build on.

Korea Republic

The record: Two wins and two draws has the team a point behind Turkmenistan.

Pros: Haven’t conceded and the four points were dropped on the road in difficult trips to Pyongyang and Beirut with empty stadiums and poor playing surfaces. A number of players looking good in strong European leagues.

Cons: The Taeguk Warriors lack fluency and variety in attack and continue to struggle against teams that defend in numbers. Coach Paulo Bento is still searching for a style and to get the best out of some talented players, not least Son Heung-min.

Grade: C - Not great but all should be well, at least in terms of getting to the next stage.

Iran

The record: Two wins, two defeats have Iran in third place.

Pros: Not much. Asia’s number one team for the past few years have lost twice so far after going unbeaten in 23 previous qualifiers but this week's 0-0 draw between the top two, Iraq and Bahrain, means that top spot is still in their hands. If Iran win all their games, then a place in the next stage is assured.

Cons: That ‘if’ is big at the moment. Under coach Marc Wilmots, all does not seem to be well amid complaints of unpaid salaries from one side and unfulfilled duties on the other. Players who are looking good for European clubs are struggling in Asia and this new Iran looks different than the highly-motivated, disciplined and organised team that thrived for eight years under Carlos Queiroz.

Grade: D - Must do better, a lot better, if Iran are to keep dreams of a fifth World Cup alive.