Tuesday's matchday 7 in Asia could see Carlos Queiroz's take another major step towards Russia 2018 by strengthening their position at the Group A summit. Group B joints leaders Saudi Arabia and Japan will, meanwhile, hope to continue their winning form against Iraq and Thailand respectively as they aim to consolidate their places in the top two.
Among the chasing pack of Group A, second-placed Korea Republic and third-placed Uzbekistan must put defeats from the last outings behind them as they aim to bounce back at home against Syria and Qatar. Having stunned Korea Republic 1-0, Marcello Lippi's China PR travel to Iran aiming to spring another surprise. Australia, meanwhile, are desperate to end their four-match winless streak with a home victory against United Arab Emirates. *FIFA.com *previews all the action across the continent.
*Iran-China PR, Azadi Stadium, Tehran
*With qualification firmly in their sights, Iran will look to their extra player - Iran’s football federation has made Tuesday's game against China free for spectators at Tehran's Azadi Stadium - as they aim to clinch maximum points at home. Steered by Queiroz, the Iranians have enjoyed arguably the smoothest qualifying campaign over the past two decades. They may be one of the two undefeated sides of this campaign – the other being Australia - but they are the only team to maintain a perfect defensive record with zero goals conceded.
The visitors are, for their part, similarly motivated to gain their second successive victory under Lippi. If their last win against Korea Republic serves to keep their hopes alive, then three points against Iran will truly rekindle their chances - at least for third place. Iran enter the re-encounter with a clear mental edge having won 11 and drawn six from the past 21 meetings. Having recorded their first victory against the South Koreans, though, the Chinese are hoping to continue their newly-rediscovered form by pulling off another major upset in Tehran.
The other attractions
Having been dealt an unexpected defeat at the hands of China, a result which saw the gap to Iran extended to four points, Uli Stielike's Korea Republic are all too aware that they must win against Syria at home if they are to maintain their place among the top two. Leading Uzbekistan by just a point, Taeguk Warriors could slip to third or even fourth if they drop points at home. Desperate as they are, though, the South Koreans will be wary of the resilient Syria, who currently trail by just two points and can leapfrog their opponents with another surprise triumph.
Elsewhere in Group A, both hosts Uzbekistan and Qatar enter the return hoping in earnest to bounce back from defeats last week. However, it was the Uzbeks who can look to their overwhelming head-to-head qualifying record, having claimed five wins and a draw from seven previous meetings, including a solitary-goal away win in the first leg. A home victory would maintain the hosts' place among the top three regardless of other results, while the visitors know anything less than three points would be meaningless. Uzbekistan will be missing suspended defender Islom Tukhtakhodjaev, while Qatar will have to make do without the service of midfielder Boualem Khoukhi for the same reason.
In Group B, both joint leaders Saudi Arabia and Japan aim to move clear with victories against Iraq and Thailand, but it is the latter who can look to their dominant record against the rivals. Having won 14 out of 18 previous meetings with the Thais, including prevailing at Bangkok in the first leg, Vahid Halilhodzic's Samurai Blue will start as strong favourites. The visitors, who will be missing captain Theerathon Bunmathan due to suspension, will become the first eliminated side should they lose and Australia win or draw.
Leading Japan only on goal difference, the Saudis know they must defeat Iraq at home to keep their place in the top. Despite narrowly losing in the first leg, however, the Iraqis boast a strong head-to-head record with 15 wins to nine from 32 meetings. Elsewhere, Australia will be keen to end their run of draws when United Arab Emirates visit Sydney for the first time since a famous win over Japan at the 2015 AFC Asian Cup. Interest will focus on the possible selection of veteran talisman Tim Cahill, who scored the only goal of the last game in Abu Dhabi.
*Player to watch *
Korea Republic will look to their star-attacker Son Heungmin as they seek to bounce back against Syria at home. In a sense, the 24-year-old Tottenham Hotspur winger has established his talismanic role with Taeguk Warriors during this campaign. With Son driving the team, the South Koreans opened the third round brightly by defeating China 3-2 at home. In his absence, though, the nine-time World Cup participants were held to a goalless draw by Syria, before losing to China in the return. Son could well be the point-of-difference against the Syrians on Tuesday.
*Do you know? *
Saudi Arabia and Iraq stand out as the pairing who are most familiar to each other, having met in 32 internationals down the years. Australia and United Arab Emirates, meanwhile, have a relatively new rivalry with just four games played between them.
*What they said *
"(Marcello) Lippi has been everywhere in football and he will make China a stronger and more intelligent team. We know that China will be well-organised and will be compact in defence. We have to be patient to try and break their rearguard but also be careful of their counter-attacking," *Iran coach Carlos Qureiroz *
Matchday 6 fixtures
*28 March *
Australia-United Arab Emirates