SEOUL, South Korea — For all the focus on the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, there’s a much more immediate concern for football supporters in the wealthy gulf nation when it comes to the sport’s marquee event.
Having lost its first two games in the final round of the Asian qualification series for the 2018 World Cup, Qatar desperately needs a win over South Korea on Thursday to boost its chances of qualifying for Russia. To achieve that, the Qataris must stop Son Heung-min, one of the hottest players in the game at the moment.
Son arrived in Seoul on Monday after scoring five goals so far this season for Tottenham — four in the Premier League and one at CKSA Moscow in the Champions League. The attacker, who has also recorded two assists, has been nominated for the Premier League’s official player of the month award for September.
“I feel good,” Son said, dismissing local concerns that he may be tired after helping his London team to second spot in the Premier League standings. “I will be fine on the match day. There is no big difference from the last season, but it’s true that my fitness is better than the last season.”
In Asian qualifying, only the countries placing first and second in each of the six-team groups will qualify automatically for Russia 2018. The South Koreans and Qatar are in Group A along with Iran, Uzbekistan, Syria and China.
South Korea, aiming to appear at a ninth successive World Cup, has four points from two games but was disappointed with a 1-1 draw against Syria on Sep. 6. There is pressure to defeat Qatar, particularly with a tough trip to Iran five days later.
“We dropped two points against Syria and we are now thinking only of Qatar,” Son said. “People think we should be able to score a lot against the opponents like Qatar at home. But they are also a good team and it’s difficult to win matches like this.”
Another defeat would leave Qatar, one of the best performing nations in the previous round of Asian qualification and still aiming for a first World Cup appearance, stranded at the bottom of the group.
After losses to Iran and Uzbekistan, the Qatar federation fired Jose Daniel Carrero and appointed his fellow Uruguayan Jorge Fossati for his second spell in charge. The pressure is immediately on Fossati.
China is also aiming for a first win in this stage, with just one point from two games ahead of its home match against Syria in Xi’an. Group leader Uzbekistan has a perfect record with six points and hosts Iran in Tashkent.
Iran coach Carlos Queiroz wants his team to set a new benchmark in this campaign.
“History shows that despite boasting great players, coaches and presidents, Iran has never qualified for the World Cup finals twice in a row,” said Queiroz, a well-traveled coach who guided Iran to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. “My job, my goal, my mission and my dream is to make this happen.”
The top two teams from Group B meet when Saudi Arabia hosts Australia in Jeddah. Both teams have six points from the opening two games. The Socceroos are back in west Asia after an impressive 1-0 win in United Arab Emirates in the previous round of games and determined to qualify for a fourth consecutive World Cup.
“We won’t take a backward step,” Australia coach Ange Postecoglou said. “It’s another game that if we can perform well and win, two wins from two away games — we know how hard that is to do in qualifying — it’ll put us a long way toward qualifying.”
The Saudis appeared in four consecutive World Cups from 1994 to 2006 and turned to former Netherlands boss Bert Van Marwijk to help them qualify for 2018. The team has struggled to two wins, defeating Thailand 1-0 and Iraq 2-1, courtesy of late penalties.
“I think they’re going to be pretty desperate,” Postecoglou predicted. “I expect them to defend and try to at least get a point out of it because if they do they’re in great shape for the games ahead.”
Japan hosts Iraq and is aiming to close the gap on the top two in the group. The Samurai Blue recovered from an opening game defeat at home to the UAE by beating Thailand 2-0 in Bangkok. Thailand now travels to Abu Dhabi to meet the UAE.
Japan’s biggest stars such as Keisuke Honda and Shinji Kagawa have spent much of the season so far on the bench with respective teams AC Milan and Borussia Dortmund.
“We have two games coming up and I want to show what I can do,” Kagawa said. “There is a strong perception that not playing regularly is negative, so we have to prove ourselves in the game.”