Familiar four from Asia reach World Cup once more but are they better placed to go further in 2022?

Japan will feature at a 7th consecutive FIFA World Cup after sealing their place in this year's edition with a 2-0 win over Australia in Thursday's Asian qualifiers. DAN HIMBRECHTS/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

With one more set of fixtures to play in the third round of Asian qualifiers for the FIFA World Cup, the continent's four guaranteed participants at the year-end tournament, excluding hosts Qatar, have been confirmed -- and it is a familiar quartet who will be present.

As was the case for the 2018 edition, Japan, South Korea, Iran and Saudi Arabia have once again come out on top in the Asian qualifiers, which began all the way back in June 2019 with 46 hopefuls eventually whittled down to four.

- Japan seal World Cup berth with dramatic win over Australia
- Australia's path to WC playoffs began long before Japan loss
- 2022 World Cup: How qualifying works around the world

After South Korea and Iran both booked their tickets to Qatar from Group A back in January, Japan followed suit in Group B on Thursday with a dramatic 2-0 win over Australia that also secured Saudi Arabia's qualification ahead of their own game against China PR.

Australia could still qualify for the World Cup -- for a fifth consecutive edition -- but, as they did four years ago, will now have to first beat Group A's third-place team in a one-off tie, with the victors then advancing to an inter-confederation playoff against South America's own fifth-placed team.

But with the Asian quartet guaranteed to feature in Qatar now finalised, we assess whether they are primed to make a bigger impact than they did in 2018.


The 2018 World Cup was one to forget for South Korea as they were eliminated after just two games, although they finished on a high by beating Germany 2-0 -- a stunning result that also ended the then-defending champions' run in the group stage.

Already a stellar name then, Son Heung-min has only elevated his standing in the four years since, although the South Koreans no longer have stalwarts like Ki Sung-yueng and Koo Ja-cheol to call upon.

There is however arguably a more even spread of talent now. Since joining Turkish giants Fenerbahce last year, Kim Min-jae has been staking a claim as Asia's best centre-back, while the likes of Hwang Hee-chan, Lee Jae-sung, Hwang Ui-jo and Hwang In-beom are all making a name for themselves in Europe.

Better than they were in 2018? Probably so. A large part of that has to do with the fact that Son has now reached world-class levels but they also have more regular contributors to rely on.


Although they were eliminated in the group stage last time out, Iran were quite possibly the most impressive of the Asian bunch as they beat Morocco, lost narrowly to Spain and then drew with Portugal to narrowly miss out on Group B's top two by a solitary point.

15 members of that 23-man squad still feature regularly for Team Melli and plenty have taken their game to another level, none more so than Mehdi Taremi -- who was still plying his trade in Asia then but is now featuring for Portuguese giants Porto in the UEFA Champions League.

The current crop has been labelled a golden generation and with Taremi, Alireza Jahanbakhsh, Sardar Azmoun and Alireza Beiranvand all in their mid to late 20s now, there could be no better chance for Iran to make their mark on the global stage and go further than the group stage for the first time ever.

Better than they were in 2018? Without a doubt. Their main men remain the same but they have gotten better and more experienced. The luck of the group stage draw will be a factor but this Team Melli outfit is one to keep an eye on.


While they were the only Asian side to reach the Round of 16 in 2018, where they suffered a heartbreaking loss to Belgium by conceding the decisive goal in the 94th minute, there remains a sentiment that Japan flattered to deceive especially given the quality they boasted back then.

Shinji Kagawa, Keisuke Honda, Yuto Nagatomo and Maya Yoshida were all among the continent's best players at the time, yet they struggled to show any real endeavour -- most notoriously when they were content to settle for a 1-0 loss to Poland even though a place in the last 16 was not guaranteed and only advancing on fair play points after finishing level with Senegal on every other tiebreaker.

Kagawa, Honda and then captain Makoto Hasebe have since left the national team fold to be replaced by a younger generation headlined by Liverpool man Takumi Minamino. Similar to their predecessors, the current Japan side have not exactly fired on all cylinders in the qualifiers but they did rise to the occasion when it mattered.

Better than they were in 2018? On paper, maybe not. Japan's class of 2018 was littered with Europe-based players who were all featuring prominently for their respective clubs. Yet, a healthy number from this team are slowly but surely raising their game playing for less glamorous sides. They might not be able to achieve a repeat of a last-16 appearance, but they could possibly at least do a better job of trying.


Like South Korea, Saudi Arabia's World Cup hopes in 2018 ended after just two games but they did manage to sign off with a 2-1 victory over an Egypt outfit led by a certain Mohamed Salah.

The only real absentee from that side is the now-retired Osama Hawsawi, who was a man mountain in defence for the Green Falcons for 12 years and finished his international career with 138 caps to his name.

Other key men from 2018 include Salman Al-Faraj and Salem Al-Dawsari who, both past the age of 30 now, should be at the peak of their powers although arguably their best player at that tournament -- defensive midfielder Abdullah Otayf - has struggled for form and fitness in recent years.

Better than they were in 2018? Yes. But with a squad entirely based domestically, there are still question marks over whether Saudi Arabia have enough big-time experience even if they were impressive throughout the qualifiers. Still, in Al-Faraj and Al-Dawsari, they have two players who could case problems for any opposition.