FIFA World Cup qualifying in Asia is now narrowed down to the final 12 nations after the second round of the qualification tournament concluded with a string of matches across the continent on Tuesday.
Eight places were up for grabs on the final matchday, and Syria, Australia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Japan, United Arab Emirates and South Korea progressed as the group winners. China, Iraq, Oman, Vietnam and Lebanon advanced as the best second-placed teams across the eight groups.
The 12 nations will now be pooled in two groups of six for the third round, which is slated to begin in September this year. The top two teams from each group will book a spot in the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar while the two third-placed teams will fight it out to decide who will represent Asia in the intercontinental play-off.
We take a look at the biggest talking points from the final matchday in the second round of 2022 FIFA World Cup and 2023 AFC Asian Cup joint qualifiers.
Vietnam only ASEAN side to progress despite loss to UAE
Vietnam and Park Hang-seo knew their chances of topping Group G were as good as over five minutes into the second half of their fixture against UAE in Dubai, as Mahmoud Khamis made it 3-0 to the hosts. But the South Korean coach would have soon breathed a sigh of relief thanks to news filtering in from Kuwait.
Some 750 miles away in Kuwait City, Australia had just beaten Group B runners-up Jordan 1-0 meaning that Vietnam were guaranteed to progress as one of the five best runners-up even if they lost to the Emiratis -- as they did, with two late goals not enough to rescue a point and top spot for the Golden Star Warriors.
Vietnam had not progressed beyond the second round of the qualifiers in their previous seven attempts, and their achievement this time, in becoming Southeast Asia's lone representatives in the third round, is a testament to the progress they have made under Park in recent years.
Coming on the back of a quarterfinal appearance in the 2019 AFC Asian Cup, the Southeast Asian champions did the double over regional rivals Malaysia and Indonesia in the second round. They had also registered a win against UAE in Hanoi, and were unbeaten in seven matches until the final-day defeat to the same opponents.
Trust Park and his coaching staff to have the Vietnamese players firing on all cylinders when they are back in action.
Iran's turnaround complete after topping neighbours Iraq
Iran were at real risk of missing the third round when the qualifying tournament restarted in Bahrain following the COVID-19 halt; having been a regular representative of Asia in the World Cup's recent editions, it would have been catastrophic for Iranian football had they failed to reach the final 12 at least.
At the restart, Team Melli were third in the group with just six points from four games -- five behind leaders Iraq and three behind second-placed Bahrain, having suffered defeats by both in the first half. However, Iran were a different team in Bahrain under Dragan Skocic, who replaced Marc Wilmots for the later stages of the qualifiers.
They defeated Hong Kong 3-1 on their return before beating Bahrain 3-0, and the 10-0 humbling of minnows Cambodia meant that top spot in Group C was within their grasp if they could defeat leaders Iraq on the final matchday.
Srecko Katanec's Iraq had been formidable in the qualifiers, and they were unbeaten with five wins and two draws heading into Tuesday. However, a lone strike from Sardar Azmoun was enough for Iran to win 1-0 to continue their quest for a third successive appearance at the World Cup; Iraq also qualified as one of the second-placed teams.
China squeeze through after trumping group winners Syria
Much like Iran, China also left much to do in the second half of the tournament. They were eight points behind first-placed Syria, and level with the Philippines, as they resumed their campaign last month. But with no signs of Syria slowing down, it was apparent they had to bank on a second-place finish to advance.
China eventually had to defeat Syria on the final day in order to qualify, and Li Tie's men did so in emphatic fashion as Zhang Xizhe, Wu Lei and Zhang Yu'Ning scored in a 3-1 victory that took their tally to 19 points and saw them advance as the best among the second-placed sides.
China have played in the World Cup finals only once, in 2002, when their route to the tournament was helped by the direct qualification of South Korea and Japan as the co-hosts. With the event returning to Asia in 2022, can China repeat the feat 20 years on?