The Socceroos are more than halfway through their final World Cup qualifying group and after the latest round of matches their campaign is looking a lot tougher than it was just a few weeks ago.
Last month, when Australia beat Oman 3-1 in Doha to win their third straight match in their qualifying group B — it put them in a strong early position for one of the two direct qualifying spots in the group, six points clear of their arch-rivals Japan.
Since then, however, the Socceroos have lost to Japan in Saitama and drawn with group leaders Saudi Arabia in Sydney before last night’s 1-1 draw with China in Sharjah.
The latest result was a big disappointment for the Socceroos, and will make their task in reaching the World Cup finals much harder.
So what does the rest of Australia’s World Cup qualifying look like? What do they have to do from here to get to Qatar?
How does Australia clinch direct qualification?
With four games left in the group, Australia has lost its advantage and now sits third on 11 points, behind Japan on 12 and Saudi Arabia who are clear on 16.
Australia’s four remaining games are at home to Vietnam in January, away to Oman in February, a home match against Japan in late March and then an away match against Saudi Arabia five days later to conclude the group.
Assuming the Socceroos can get results against Vietnam and Oman — no certainty after last night’s scoreline — then they will likely need to at least beat Japan and draw with Saudi Arabia to get second place and a trip to the finals.
If they finish third in the group, they will miss out on direct qualification.
What happens then?
Australia plays in the Asian (AFC) confederation. The rules say that the third-place team in both final qualifying groups then play each other.
As things stand, if qualification ended now, Australia would be third in group B, and the United Arab Emirates would be third in group A.
If this was the final outcome, the Socceroos would then have to play a two-leg, home and away tie against the UAE.
If successful, Graham Arnold’s side would have one more mountain to climb — the Intercontinental play-offs.
What are the Intercontinental play-offs?
The last two of the 32 available spots at the FIFA men’s World Cup will be decided in June 2022, with the Intercontinental play-offs.
There are six confederations in FIFA: AFC (Asia), CAF (Africa), CONCACAF (Central and North America), CONMEBOL (South America), OFC (Oceania) and UEFA (Europe).
Europe has 13 confirmed spots in the finals, Africa has five.
For AFC (four direct spots), CONCACAF (three), CONMEBOL (four) and OFC (no direct spots), the picture is different.
The last team standing that has not clinched a direct spot from each of these four confederations goes into a draw.
This results in two, two-leg ties. The winners go to the World Cup finals, the losers are out.
Who could Australia play in the play-offs?
Until a draw is made, there is no idea which confederations will end up playing each other, so if Australia makes it this far they could face a team from Oceania, South America or Central and North America.
Last time round, the Socceroos beat Honduras (CONCACAF) in the play-off to book their tickets to Russia.
As things stand right now, the fourth-placed team in CONCACAF is Panama.
In CONMEBOL right now, Peru would be the team in fifth position, out of automatic qualification.
Oceania has been the hardest hit by COVID considerations — no qualifiers have been held as yet. The plan is for a series of qualifiers to be held in Qatar in March next year.
New Zealand has been Oceania’s team in contention for a spot at the last three World Cups. They beat Bahrain to qualify in 2010, but lost to Mexico and Peru in 2014 and 2018.
It’s the luck fo the draw, but if Oceania gets drawn with Asia next year, it could well be an trans-Tasman clash between the Socceroos and the All Whites to decide who goes to Qatar.