The Blue Samurai have been drawn as the Socceroos headline opponent in a group including Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Iraq and Thailand.
While three trips to the Middle East won’t please national team coach Ange Postecoglou, the Asian Cup-winning coach is confident of finishing in the top two of the group and progressing to the 2018 tournament in Russia.
Australia avoids Asian Cup finalists Korea in the draw, who will play off in Group B with Iran, Uzbekistan, China, Qatar and Syria.
Since memorably beating Japan at the 2006 World Cup, the two sides have faced each other in two World Cup qualifying campaigns. But it’s been seven years since the Socceroos last triumphed over them, a 2-1 win at the MCG.
Japan scorched through their second-round group, scoring 27 goals without conceding but Postecoglou says he isn’t daunted by the draw.
“As Champions of Asia we will show due respect to all countries but stay focussed on continuing our journey that has aspirations greater than simply qualifying for the World Cup,” he said from Kuala Lumpur last night.
“Over the last two years we have built up a very strong portfolio of information on most Asian nations and its players by having scouts at matches and tournaments all over Asia so the players go into every match well prepared.”
Socceroos striker Tim Cahill, who plies his trade in the Chinese Super League, said the draw would be a slog.
“The only good thing is I won’t be responsible for knocking China out,” he told Fox Sports.
“Japan: a country we know, we’ve had a lot of good times against and some hard times. We’ve had some good battles.
“But to make it to such a prestigious tournament you have to beat the best.”
Japan, the world No.57, and Saudi Arabia, the world No.60, have – like Australia – qualified for four World Cups.
United Arab Emirates and Iraq have made just one tournament each, while Thailand has never reached world football’s major event.
But the three Middle Eastern sides will pose logistical challenges for the Socceroos, largely based in Europe, East Asia and the A-League.
Australia play each side home and away in a qualifying schedule that begins on September 1 with a home tie against Iraq.
They are highly unlikely to play in Iraq, with the war-torn country playing their matches on neutral soil.
A third-place finish in the group would send Australia to a repechage round. A lower finish would end their hopes.
AUSTRALIA’S WORLD CUP QUALIFYING OPPONENTS
Japan (world No.57)
Saudi Arabia (60)
United Arab Emirates (68)
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