Battlefield ally Iran, one of two nations whose support has enabled forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad to gain an upper hand in the country’s six-year conflict.
Syria would be guaranteed at least a playoff place for the 2018 finals if it beats Iran in Tehran on Tuesday, and may qualify automatically as runners-up in their group depending on the result between South Korea and Uzbekistan.
Syria has played its “home” qualification games in Malaysia, a blow for Assad who’s attempting to portray life in territory controlled by his government as returning toward normalcy.
After Syria’s 3-1 defeat of Qatar last week set up the crunch match in Tehran’s Azadi stadium, there was speculation on social media over whether its geopolitical ties would affect the outcome.
“The accusation of colluding with Syria is dirty and cowardly,” the 64-year-old, who previously managed Spain’s Real Madrid and coached at Manchester United , said in a press conference on Monday, according to the semi-official KhabarOnline news site.
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