A place in the final four of the Asian Cup is the main prize for Graham Arnold’s men when they walk out to face South Korea in the early hours of Saturday morning, but the match will have wider implications.
There’s no doubt the Taeguk Warriors will be out for revenge, the bitter taste of defeat nine years ago in the 2015 Asian Cup final still fresh on the tongue for the three players in Sydney that day, but the memory well imprinted regardless for those who weren’t.
Strangely enough however, there are also significant World Cup qualification implications on the line between two of Asia’s heavyweight competitors.
48-team World Cup shakes up Asian qualification
The move to a larger World Cup finals structure, sees the AFC’s qualification allowance increase from four-and-a-half to eight-and-a-half places (the half referring to a spot in the intercontinental playoff).
Competition restructuring is the theme here, as the third round of Asian qualification (the main path to the World Cup) also takes a different shape compared to years past.
For Qatar 2022, the third round split the 12 teams into two groups of six, whereas this time around it will be 18 teams in three groups of six.
The key point to remember is that the groups are seeded based on their official FIFA nation ranking.
This means that jumping up into the top three ranked teams in Asia would allow the Socceroos to avoid Japan and Iran – the top two Asian nations.
The winner of the quarter-final between Australia and Korea Republic will end the tournament in that top three and will go a long way to securing an easier path towards North America 2026.
Whilst there are still four more matchdays in round two of qualification to play, the likelihood of Australia and South Korea winning most of their games and the lesser importance according to the formula, make in unlikely that the rankings will change again before the draw.
2015 Asian Cup final rematch
Beyond the rankings and even the semi-final place that’s on the line, there’s also the issue of vengeance for Son Heung-min’s side.
Their current captain and talisman scored that day, where Australia won their first men’s Asian trophy on home soil.
It’s a loss that he’s been reminded of more frequently since working under Ange Postecoglou at Tottenham over the last seven months.
Whilst it’s been all smiles with his new boss at club land, there’s no doubt that Son will be looking to avenge that defeat on the weekend.
The two Australian survivors from that 2015 squad are captain Mathew Ryan and Aziz Behich, who themselves will have some unforgettable moments from that day.
It all ties together to set up a mouthwatering contest between the two Asian giants, a match that will be fiercely fought and will have both immediate and long-term consequences.