Home support could prove decisive in Asian World Cup qualifying Thursday when Australia play on their own patch for the first time in two years while a full house will roar on Son Heung-min’s South Korea.
The coronavirus has played havoc with Asian qualifying for Qatar, forcing some teams to play home games overseas and some matches staged in front of limited crowds or empty stadiums.
Australia have been especially hard hit, playing 11 of their 12 qualifiers for next year’s World Cup on the road.
It has not harmed them — they won a record 11 games in a row until a 2-1 defeat in Japan blew qualifying Group B wide open last month.
The Socceroos are hoping that their fans can roar them to victory in Sydney in a key clash against Saudi Arabia, who top the group with a perfect 12 points from four matches.
Australia are second on nine points, ahead of Oman and Japan who are on six.
The top two in each of the two Asian groups automatically qualify for Qatar 2022.
Each side will play twice in the next week, as the final qualifying stage passes the halfway point.
“Our 12th man is the fans and we need a full stadium to get behind these boys who have committed a lot to Australian football,” Socceroos coach Graham Arnold said.
“Our 12th man will get us across the line and I’m appealing to all the fans here in Australia to get to the stadium because it’s going to be a fantastic night.
“The Socceroos are back in town and we can’t wait.”
Also in Group B, Japan travel to Vietnam knowing that they cannot afford any more slip-ups, having lost two of their four games.
Vietnam prop up the group and are yet to get points on the board.
China are just about still alive, with three points, but are unable to play home matches in the country because of China’s strict coronavirus measures.
Li Tie’s side play Oman on Thursday and Australia on Tuesday, both in the UAE.
“We have been longing to play our upcoming games at home,” the former Everton midfielder Li, now China’s coach, told the state Xinhua news agency.
– Son’s full house –
If Group B looks open, Group A is a little more clear-cut.
Iran, who travel to Lebanon and then play Syria in Amman, are top with 10 points from a maximum 12.
South Korea have failed to sparkle but are still second in Group A and unbeaten. In Tottenham Hotspur forward Son they also have a world-class talent.
They host the United Arab Emirates at Goyang Stadium and, with the country slowly opening up from the virus, a capacity crowd of 35,000 is expected.
It is the first time in nearly two years that Son’s side will play a home international in front of a full stadium, with restrictions on spectators recently easing.
“I’ve talked to my teammates already about finally playing in front of fans,” said Hwang Hee-chan, who has impressed since moving to Premier League Wolves on loan from RB Leipzig in the Bundesliga.
“We’re all extra motivated to do well for them. We’ll try to put on an entertaining show for our supporters,” Yonhap News Agency quoted him as saying.