Australia’s Socceroos have been offered the toughest path to next year’s World Cup should they fail to gain automatic qualification from their Asian group, with a South American powerhouse awaiting them in a potential one-match playoff.
The draw for the intercontinental playoffs, made in Zurich on Friday, ensured that Graham Arnold’s men will face the fifth best side in South American qualifying should they end up as Asian playoff winners.
The Socceroos will be desperately hoping to avoid that familiar fate, though, by finishing second in their Asian group and gaining automatic qualification to the finals in Qatar next year.
Currently, Australia lie third in their pool with four matches remaining and if that’s the position they finish in, they would have to play an Asian playoff against the third-placed side in the other qualifying group.
Currently, that’s the United Arab Emirates.
Victory in that would then set up a one-off decider, at a neutral venue yet to be confirmed, against the fifth-placed South American side – currently Peru – on either June 13 or 14 next year.
But with Colombia, Chile and Uruguay all still battling for the automatic top four qualifying spots in South America, there would be no easy opposition – as Socceroos’ sides have found to their cost in the past.
For although Australia ended a 32-year World Cup drought by beating Uruguay on penalties after a two-legged play-off in 2005, they also lost play-offs to Uruguay in 2001 and Argentina in 1993.
Four years ago, Australia secured their passage to the 2018 World Cup with an intercontinental play-off victory over Honduras.
Meanwhile, New Zealand’s chances of reaching the World Cup finals were boosted by the intercontinental draw also pairing Oceania’s top side with the fourth-best team from North and Central America.
With the Oceanian sides yet to play their qualifying group, New Zealand are overwhelming favourites to get through to face the fourth-placed CONCACAF representative, which is currently Panama.