KUALA LUMPUR

Asian champions Australia landed in the same group as heavyweights Japan on Tuesday as teams were drawn for the final stage of regional qualifying for the 2018 World Cup.

Ange Postecoglou's Socceroos will also face Iraq, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and minnows Thailand in Group B when games start in September. Sleeping giants China, who scraped into the third round after a stop-start qualifying campaign so far, have a tough assignment against Iran and South Korea in Group A. War-torn Syria, Uzbekistan and Qatar, the 2022 World Cup hosts, are the other teams in Group A. The top two in each group will qualify for the World Cup in Russia, while two third-placed sides will face each other for the right to contest an intercontinental play-off.

Postecoglou told AFP that all the games will be "challenging", especially with Japan. "All the games are going to be challenging. We will be playing against Japan. It will be tough," he said. "But I am sure we will be ready for it," he added.

Iran's highly-regarded Portuguese coach Carlos Queiroz predicted South Korea, Japan and Australia would qualify for the World Cup in Russia. "South Korea, Japan and Australia will go to the World Cup. The last one spot will be fought by Iran, China and Uzbekistan," he said.

Queiroz said travelling long jouneys on commercial flights would take a toll on his players. "Besides needing good preparations you need resources like having shorter air travel time for the players," he said. Queiroz said playing against China in particular would be difficult and the team was making huge improvements. "South Korea is very strong and we have Qatar too. We have a complete new team. They are young and talented but no experience," he said.

Qatar's head coach Jose Daniel Carreno said he was pleased to be playing in Group A. "Our goal is to be the best four teams and qualify for the World Cup," he said.

But Qatar's task is tough, especially as they are only the ninth highest ranked team out of the remaining 12, according to FIFA -- ahead of Iraq, Syria and Thailand. The Gulf state has been battered by ongoing allegations of corruption, charges it denies, and labour abuse, which it claims to be addressing through reform.

Russia 2018 represents Qatar's last chance to qualify for a World Cup on merit before automatically playing as hosts in 2022. Southeast Asia's only representive Thailand, the lowest-rank team in the qualifyoing finals, has an impossible task ahead.

"It is going to be very difficult for Thailand. They are in a tough group," David Mitchell, former Australian striker told AFP.

Group A: Iran, South Korea, Uzbekistan, China, Qatar, Syria

Group B: Australia, Japan, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Iraq, Thailand