- Associated Press - Sunday, September 3, 2017

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) - For five countries still contending for two direct spots at the World Cup, the Asian qualifying campaign has come down to 90 minutes.

Iran and Japan have already secured places at Russia 2018 as winners of Groups A and B, but both countries still could have a role to play in which of their rivals - including Asian champion Australia and South Korea - will be joining them in Russia.

Seven Asian teams can still qualify either by finishing second in their groups or by going through continental and intercontinental playoffs.

Iran hosts the surprising Syria team, which has unable to play at home for security reasons during the ongoing conflict in their country, but which moved into third place in Group A last week with a 3-1 win over Qatar.

Despite the disrupted build up, Syria still has a chance to qualify for its first World Cup if results go its way on Tuesday. To do so, the Syrians need to win in Tehran and rely on South Korea losing by a narrow margin in Uzbekistan.

Iran is yet to concede a goal in nine Group A games so far, but Syria has made a habit of upsetting the odds by holding Iran and South Korea to draws when playing in its temporary - and usually mostly empty - home ground in Malaysia. To win in Tehran would be the biggest result in the nation’s history.

“We know that we have a tough game ahead but we will do what we can,” Syria coach Ayman Hakee, who earlier in qualification had to deal with a number of important players refusing to appear for the national team in a reflection of the divisions that have torn the country apart, was quoted as saying after the win over Qatar last Thursday.

With stars such as Omar Al Soma and Firas Al Khatib returning to the team and in good form, there’s still potential for an upset win.

“We have come this far,” Ayman said. “We will keep going to the end.”

Here’s a breakdown of the status of each of group with two automatic places and two play-off places still up for grabs:

Group A

South Korea can qualify for a ninth successive World Cup if it takes all three points in Uzbekistan, though that is far from certain with the team winning just one of its last five qualifiers.

Poor form cost Uli Stielike to lose his job as head coach in June. Shin Tae-yong was appointed as the replacement but in his first game last week, could only record a 0-0 draw at home to Iran, which had already qualified for the World Cup and was reduced to 10 men.

“If we play our best and stay focused, then we will win,” said Shin, who is awaiting news on the fitness of captain Ki Sung-yeung.

Uzbekistan can qualify for a first-ever World Cup if it can beat South Korea in Tashkent and Syria fails to win in Iran.

If Syria plays to a draw in Iran, it can hold third place and go into a play-off with the third-place team in Group B for a spot in an intercontinental qualifier.

Even China still has a remote chance at one of the playoff spots, but needs to beat Qatar by a big margin and for Syria and Uzbekistan to both lose.

Group B

Saudi Arabia and Australia each has 16 points and are vying for second spot, with the group standings going down to the last game when the Saudis host Japan.

The Saudis have a superior goal difference of the two and hosts already qualified Japan. Australia hosts struggling Thailand to Melbourne. If the Saudis and Australians both win, the World Cup spot will depend on goal difference.

Australia, bidding for a fourth successive appearance at the World Cup, is taking nothing for granted against a Thai team that has collected just two points from nine games. One of those points was well earned in a 2-2 draw at home against Australia last November.

Star midfielder Aaron Mooy of English Premier League team Hudderfield Town missed Australia’s loss to Japan because of illness but could recover to start in Melbourne.

“We need to go out there and be fearless,” Tim Cahill, a veteran of Australia’s World Cup campaigns since 2006, said Monday. “We all know what’s on the line.

“This is a massive moment for our country to stake a claim in a World Cup. Goals will definitely come. I’m confident we’ll score a lot of goals.”

Saudi Arabia has not appeared at the World Cup since 2006 and will be hoping that Japan is still in a celebratory mood after clinching qualification. The Samurai Blue are without injured midfielders Shinji Kagawa of Borussia Dortmund and captain Makoto Hasebe of Eintracht Frankfurt.

The United Arab Emirates needs a big win over Iraq in Amman combined with losses for the Saudis and Australians to have a chance of finishing third.

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