South Korea can book their place in Qatar with a victory against Syria on Tuesday at Rashid Stadium in Dubai as their World Cup 2022 qualifying campaign continues.
The Syrians are winless in Group A with only two points, while the Taegeuk Warriors will head into this encounter unbeaten in 12 consecutive matches played in all competitions.
It is still mathematically possible for Syria to keep their qualification hopes alive, but with three games to go, they trail the United Arab Emirates by seven points for a playoff, which means that they will need to win their remaining fixtures and get some help.
This is the second go-around for Valeriu Tita as manager of the national team, and the Syrians showed signs of improvement on Thursday, firing five shots on target but failing to keep their poise in the final third despite a couple of good chances in the second half.
The nation currently ranked 86th globally have played well in their past meetings with the South Koreans, producing three draws and narrowly losing the last two games against them by a single goal.
In October, Syria were minutes away from claiming a point versus the 2002 World Cup semi-finalists, finding an equaliser in the 84th minute, only to concede the winner a minute before injury time.
They play with a ton of youthful exuberance, and like to press opposing teams high up the field, enabling them to create at least a couple of chances each game, but at the same time, that aggressive approach can often leave them susceptible to the counter.
The Quasioun Eagles are still learning what it takes to beat the elite sides in Asia, but their impressive 2018 qualification campaign along with some solid performances in this round of qualifying shows that they are not afraid of the big footballing nations in this region and that regardless of how this journey ends, the future of Syrian football is bright.
Paulo Bento’s side began this qualification stage on a disappointing note, drawing 0-0 with Iraq, but have come on strong since then and are on the verge of making it to a 10th successive World Cup.
A former defensive midfielder, who collected 35 caps for the Portuguese national team, Bento has brought structure and organisation to the South Korean backline, who have picked up nine clean sheets in their 2022 qualifiers up to now.
Whatever this team had been practising in their nearly two-month break in between the middle of November to January has paid off as they have played exceptionally well so far this year, winning all three of their matches and outscoring their opponents by a 10-1 margin.
Those results are impressive, although what has to be even more amazing is that they have achieved this without perhaps their most valuable asset in Son Heung-Min, who leads Tottenham in goals (eight) and assists (four) this season.
This is a possession-based side who are used to having the ball for 60% of a match at least, and their strong, hard-working holding midfielders do a great job of winning balls all over the field, enabling them to catch opposing teams in transition.
When South Korea can settle into a game and find their rhythm early on, they are a tough team to contend with, as they have not allowed a first-half goal in this third round of qualifying.
Syria World Cup Qualifying – Asia form:
South Korea World Cup Qualifying – Asia form:
South Korea form (all competitions):
We say: Syria 0-1 South Korea
The Syrians have proven that they can compete with the big boys of Asia, but South Korea know what it takes to make it to the finals and have proven to be a tough side to break down, so we expect them to get the better of Syria and book their place at the World Cup once again.