All you need to know about the Socceroos' 5 World Cup qualifying opponents

Australia's group for the final round of AFC qualifying for the 2018 FIFA World Cup includes three of the four semi-finalists from the 2015 Asian Cup, and three winners of the Asian Cup during the last 32 years.


Source: Getty Images

The Socceroos always love to claim they have been drawn in the 'group of death' and looking at the two groups for the final round of Asian Qualifying, there can be little doubt that Australia have been drawn in the tougher group, after being pitted against Japan, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Iraq and Thailand.

But just how tough will it be? What can the Asian champions expect when the next round gets underway later this year? And who should the fans look out for?


The Samurai Blue need very little introduction to Australians. This will be the third qualification in a row that the two Asian heavyweights have been drawn together in the final round of qualifying.

Now coached by the experienced Bosnian Vahid Halilhodzic, there will be few surprises when the Socceroos meet the four-time Asian Cup champions in October this year, and next August.

The names of Shinji Kagawa, Keisuke Honda, Yuto Nagatomo and Shinji Okazaki will all, barring injury, be on the team sheet.

Perhaps less familiar are the likes of Yoshinori Muto, Genki Haraguchi and Takashi Usami, who represent the new breed coming through.


The only blip on their record came was when they drew 0-0 with Singapore early in qualification, but otherwise the Samurai Blue have won all seven matches without conceding a goal.

However, there were still some concerns expressed by local fans over the laboured style of some of their performances. 

Player to watch – Yoshinori Muto

The 23 year-old former FC Tokyo striker has had only limited opportunities with the national team, but his form at club level suggests he is ready to burst onto the scene in the next few years.

He swiftly came out of the blocks with 10 goals in 17 games for FC Tokyo in the first stage of the J.League last year, before a move to Bundesliga side Mainz, where he has similarly impressed with 7 goals in 20 matches in his debut season.

Quick, and with an eye for goal, he is one to keep an eye on in the years to come.

Saudi Arabia

Incredibly talented, but highly temperamental is probably an apt description of the Green Falcons.

Regulars at World Cups in the 1990s and early 2000s, their last appearance was in 2006, before Australia started qualifying through Asia.

Under the guidance of former Dutch national team manager Bert van Marwijk, who helped the Oranje move through to the 2010 FIFA World Cup final, the Saudis will be no pushovers, especially at home where they have lost just two of their last 29 qualifiers.

Typically they like to play a very aggressive style of game, looking to attack at any opportunity and get their speedy wingers in behind the opposition defence.


They finished top of Group A in the second round of qualification, ahead of UAE - who they will meet once again, with six wins and two draws, and amassed an impressive 28 goals in the process.

Player to watch – Mohammad Al-Sahlawi

The highest scorer in the previous round of qualifying (14), thanks largely to five in one match against Timor Leste, the 29 year-old has been a prolific goal scorer for Al Nassr in the Saudi Pro League with 68 goals in 113 matches in the last five seasons. 

While he might not score the flashy, headline-catching goals, he is the ultimate penalty-box predator, always managing to find himself in the right place at the right time to put the ball in the back of the net.


The Emiratis shocked everyone when they knocked off defending champions Japan at the Asian Cup last year, announcing themselves as a potential Asian heavyweight.

But Mahdi Ali’s side has struggled to really take the next step and join Asia’s perennial ‘big four’ of Japan, South Korea, Iran and Australia. 

A lack of emerging talent coming through means there is little pressure on the incumbent players, who are also reluctant to leave the Emirates to test themselves in Europe. 


Solid without being spectacular. A 0-0 draw with Palestine and a loss to Saudi Arabia in the middle of qualifying put pressure on the Emiratis to qualify as one of the best second placed teams, but three wins from their last four games saw them make it through.

Player to watch – Omar Abdulrahman

What more needs to be said about the little master?

He is the barometer of this UAE outfit and his shoulders carry a large burden as quite often the difference between success and failure.

Creative, silky and with seemingly 360 degree vision, he is capable of creating something out of nothing.

If you allow him to assert his dominance, he will wreak havoc.

The only disappointing thing is that he is not playing in one of Europe’s better leagues as a flag bearer for Emirati football.


The Lions of Mesopotamia have often been Australia’s bogey side.

While the Socceroos have won their last three matches against the war-torn nation, it has never been by more than a single goal.

While circumstances suggest they shouldn’t, Iraq continue to produce quality players, with the likes of Ali Adnan, Dhurgham Ismail and Yaser Kasim just some of the latest to emerge. 

A stirring run to the semi-finals at last year’s Asian Cup, where they were beaten by South Korea, proved that while off the field the running of the game might be a shambles, on the pitch they continue to produce when it matters. 

Rahdi Shnaishel, who coached them at the 2015 Asian Cup, has just been reappointed as coach for this stage of qualifying and his familiarity with the squad will help him hit the ground running.


Three wins and three draws in qualifying (they were in the smaller Group F with only four teams) saw them finish second in the group behind Thailand. However, they’ve only won two of their last seven overall.

Player to watch – Yaser Kasim

Kasim was a standout at last year’s Asian Cup before becoming embroiled in an ugly spat with national team legend Younis Mahmoud, which originally saw him retire from international duty.

A classy central midfielder, with excellent vision and range of passing, he has the ability to control the game from midfield and play the game at his tempo. 


The resurgence of the War Elephants in recent years has been one of the few bright spots to come out of Southeast Asia.

This will be the first ever appearance in the final round of qualifying for the four-time ASEAN champions, who will also be looking to defend their Suzuki Cup title later this year. 

Since Kiatisuk ‘Zico’ Senamuang took over the national team in 2014, they have gone from strength to strength, producing some scintillating football along the way with a new youthful looking line-up. 


The Thais went through their six qualifying matches undefeated, with four wins, and two draws - both thrilling 2-2 encounters against the more fancied Iraq. They’ve only lost once in their last ten matches overall - a narrow 1-0 defeat to South Korea in an international last month.

Player to watch – Theerathon Bunmathan

The captain of the Thai side, Theerathon will be a familiar name to fans of Brisbane Roar, after he played a key role in eliminating them from the Asian Champions League, when they lost to Buriram United in 2013.

The marauding left-back has been a standout for Thailand for a number of years and possesses a wicked left-foot from the dead ball.

He’s also not afraid to get forward and link with the attack, scoring twice in their six matches in qualifying.

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7 min read
Published 13 April 2016 at 7:56pm
By Paul Williams