By Michael Church
(Reuters) - China have been handed a daunting task to reach the 2022 World Cup after being drawn in the same group as Japan, Australia and Saudi Arabia in the final round of Asia's preliminaries.
The draw, which took place in Kuala Lumpur on Thursday, also placed Oman and Vietnam, the rising stars of Southeast Asia, in Group B.
Japan, Australia and the Saudis took three of the continent's five places at the last World Cup in Russia and will present a significant barrier to China's hopes of qualifying for the tournament for the first time since their debut in 2002.
"Due to the pandemic, for almost two years we didn't play any international games, especially abroad, so I wish before the final round of the qualification we can play some international games," said China coach Li Tie.
"It’s a very good group. We will try our best to play well in all the games."
In Group A, Iran will again battle South Korea, with the pair having faced off in qualifying for each of the previous three World Cups. Both teams advanced to the finals in Russia.
United Arab Emirates, Syria, Iraq and Lebanon make up the rest of the group.
"It will be a difficult group, a balanced group I think," said Paulo Bento, who will be attempting to qualify South Korea for the country's 10th consecutive World Cup.
"But we will try to do our best and achieve our goal."
The top two finishers from each group secure automatic berths alongside tournament hosts Qatar.
The third-placed teams play each other and the winners advance to an intercontinental playoff.
The opening matches of the final phase are scheduled to begin in September, with qualifying set to be concluded by March and the playoffs slated for completion by June.
Group A: Iran, South Korea, United Arab Emirates, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon
Group B: Japan, Australia, Saudi Arabia, China, Oman, Vietnam
(Reporting by Michael Church; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne)