13 April 2016
by Sebastian Hassett
Socceroos handed challenging draw on the final road to Russia 2018Challenges ahead: Socceroos coach Ange Postecoglou.
The Socceroos' draw for the third and final round of 2018 World Cup qualifiers will feature a mix of old foes and new combatants as Ange Postecoglou's side seek to make their fourth consecutive appearance at the global showpiece.
Australia find themselves pitted in an extremely challenging group alongside Japan, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Iraq and Thailand with the first lot of matches commencing in September.
But while Australia will be expected to progress, Tuesday night's draw at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Kuala Lumpur did them zero favours. Japan and Saudi Arabia remain regional powers, both Iraq and the UAE made the 2015 Asian Cup semi-finals while Thailand are making enormous strides.
In Asia's other qualification group Iran, South Korea, Uzbekistan, China, Qatar, and Syria have been drawn together in what shapes as a straightforward opportunity for Iran and South Korea.
The top two teams from both groups will automatically qualify for Russia, with the two third-placed teams pitted against each other in a two-legged playoff. The winner of that contest will then be forced into another home-and-away playoff, facing the fourth-highest ranked North American team for a spot in the final 32.
Postecoglou's men will be determined to avoid that fate by gaining direct qualification, as they managed to do during the final stage of qualifiers for South Africa 2010 and Brazil 2014. The coach, however, has plenty of confidence in his side's ability.
"It's good to know the draw so we have a clear picture of what is in front of us from a football and logistics perspective to qualify for the World Cup," Postecoglou said.
"Over the last two years we have built up a very strong portfolio of information on most Asian nations and its players by having scouts at matches and tournaments all over Asia so the players go into every match well prepared. That information will be sharpened and expanded now we know that we face Japan, Iraq, UAE, Saudi Arabia and Thailand.
"As Champions of Asia we will show due respect to all countries but focused on continuing our journey that has aspirations greater than simply qualifying for the World Cup."
The final draw was manufactured to resemble the FIFA rankings as closely as possible, with the two groups drawn from six different pots of two teams apiece, with each pot seeded according to the rankings.
That meant the only team Australia - the second highest-ranked team in Asia at 57 - couldn't be drawn with was the highest ranked team - No.50 ranked Iran - as they shared the number one pot.
Despite the logistical challenges, the Socceroos will be favourites to make it through to Russia and continue a qualification streak that dates back to the 2006 World Cup.
A restructuring of qualifying in the Asian region for the 2018 World Cup saw the second round expanded to include a host of minnows, although Australia didn't seal their path to the third stage until their final group match, a 5-1 win over Jordan.
Aside from the infamous 2-0 defeat against Jordan in Amman, it was an otherwise breezy qualification stage for the Socceroos, who comfortably accounted for Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Bangladesh both home and away.
All eyes from an Australian perspective will be on talisman Tim Cahill, who will turn 37 during the campaign, to see whether he can maintain the momentum that has seen him notch eight goals already during this qualifying campaign, four more than any other Socceroo.
Cahill only needs three more goals to make it to 50 international goals and needs to play just 11 more matches to become the first outfielder to reach 100 games, with Lucas Neill (96 caps) and Brett Emerton (95 caps) falling agonisingly short.
If Cahill plays in every friendly and qualifier - a real possibility despite the questions that remain over his future at Chinese club Hangzhou Greentown - he could reach the tally in 14 months.