KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — Asian Cup champion Australia and Japan have been grouped together in the last round of Asian qualifying for the 2018 World Cup in Russia.
The Socceroos and Japan were drawn into Group B at a ceremony in Kuala Lumpur on Tuesday and will be joined by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Iraq and Thailand.
Iran and South Korea were the top-seeded teams in Group A, which also includes China, Uzbekistan, 2022 World Cup host Qatar and Syria.
The teams were drawn into two groups of six, with the matches starting in September. The top two teams in each group qualify automatically, with the third-place teams playing off for a shot at an inter-continental qualifier against the fourth-place team from CONCACAF in November 2017.
The teams were seeded and drawn from six pots based on the April 7 FIFA rankings, meaning Iran and Australia — the top teams in the rankings — could not meet nor could South Korea and Japan.
Australia is expected to open against 2007 Asian champion Iraq at home on Sept. 1 before travelling to the UAE. In October, the Australians travel to Saudi Arabia before returning for a home match against Japan, which has qualified for the last five World Cups. The Saudis reached the Round of 16 in 1994 and played in four consecutive World Cups but haven’t qualified since 2006. Also on Sept. 1, Iran opens against Qatar, South Korea hosts China, Japan is at home to UAE, Saudi Arabia takes on Thailand and Uzbekistan meets Syria.
Japan is the only team in the group with a winning record against Australia — eight wins and eight draws in their 23 international meetings.
"If you want to make it to such a prestigious tournament, you’ve got to beat the best. I’m excited," Australia forward Tim Cahill, who scored twice in a comeback win over Japan in his World Cup debut in 2006, told Fox Sports Australia. "This is what football is all about. We’ve done so well in the Asian Cup by winning it — this is where it’s going to separate the men from the boys. We’re ready for it. We want to play the best."
Australia coach Ange Postecoglou said the challenging draw would hone the Socceroos ahead of its bigger target.
"As Champions of Asia we will show due respect to all countries," he said, "but (we’re) focused on continuing our journey that has aspirations greater than simply qualifying for the World Cup."
South Korea is growing in confidence after reaching the final of the 2015 Asian Cup, topping their second-round group with 24 unanswered goals.
"We played exceptionally well in 2015 so we’re full of confidence. I’m very optimistic that we’ll make it to Russia," South Korea coach Uli Stielike said ahead of the draw. The South Koreans have played in nine World Cups and reached the semifinals in 2002 while co-hosting the tournament with Japan, which remains the best run by an Asian team at the sport’s marquee tournament.
The South Koreans open against China, which scraped into the last round with two late wins to maintain its hopes of reaching the World Cup for only the second time.
War-torn Syria reached the final round despite the ongoing upheaval, forcing the national team to play the entire second round away from home.
The Syrians finished behind Japan in the previous stage to progress as one of the four best second-place teams.