Surprise early Asian pacesetters Guam and Hong Kong face daunting World Cup qualifying road trips to Iran and China on Thursday that will better gauge the progress of the two smaller countries.
Guam, a tiny US territory in the Pacific Ocean, travel to Tehran talking of a possible upset against a side that thrashed them 19-0 in qualifying for the 2002 World Cup.
Buoyed by their first wins at this level in June – 1-0 over Turkmenistan and 2-1 against India – English coach Gary White says his side, who top Group D, are ready to take on the three-time Asian champions.
“We know the size of the challenge we are faced with, up against a team that has won several Asian Cups and which has been a regular qualifier for World Cups,” he told The Pacific Daily News. “That’s the position that we want to put ourselves in.”
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The fixture was in doubt at one point after Guam complained that Iran were delaying visa applications, requiring the Asian Football Confederation to step in and mediate.
Some in Hong Kong have also been angered ahead of their Group C fixture in China, with complaints that tickets for the Shenzhen clash have been made difficult to buy.
The game is likely to be a tense affair after Hong Kong fans booed the Chinese anthem, adopted by the territory in 1997, before they beat Bhutan 7-0 and Maldives 2-0 in June to top the group, with Fifa warning of punishments if there is a repeat.
The tie has seen Hong Kong fans reminisce over one of their rare successes against China when they won a World Cup qualifier in Beijing 30 years ago, but China manager Alain Perrin is not expecting another upset before the match against Maldives five days later.
“Our target is to collect six points in the two matches and to score as many goals as possible against the weaker teams,” the Frenchman was quoted as saying by the South China Morning Post.
They are two of 15 matches taking place in the joint 2019 Asian Cup qualifying campaign. Only the eight group winners are guaranteed a spot in the second round of Asian qualifying for Russia 2018.
Australia manager Ange Postecoglou is concerned that a bitter pay dispute between players and Football Federation Australia has impinged on Australia’s preparation for Thursday’s World Cup qualifying match against Bangladesh.
Australian players have boycotted commercial appearances in Perth this week because of an impasse in pay negotiations between Professional Footballers Australia and the FFA.
Postecoglou said: “If we think it’s OK during the World Cup qualifiers to play out this scenario then I’m out of whack with everyone else because I think while the game is on ... lay down your guns and pick them up as soon as it’s over.”
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