As the 2007 instalment of the AFC Asian Cup inches ever closer, many favourites will be looking to seal qualification in the crucial fourth round of preliminaries on Wednesday.
Many of the perennial favourites will be keen to follow the lead of AFC newcomers Australia, who became the first side to progress to the continental finals with a 2-0 win over Kuwait in the previous round. Along with co-hosts Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam, they are the only team sure of a place in next year's finals.
But with any luck, a few more Asian teams are likely to book their spots after Wednesday's matches.
Three-time Asian champions and Group A leaders Saudi Arabia go into their second match against India with confidence sky-high after edging out Japan 1-0 in their last group match back on 3 September. Brazil-born Saudi boss Marcos Paqueta and his charges must already be preparing for the post-match celebration at Jeddah's Prince Abdullah Al Faisal Stadium knowing that a single point against the visiting, and unfancied, South Asians will be enough to see them through.
The only problem may lie in the fact that they will have to play without forward Yasser Al Kahtani who sustained and injury that will keep him out for the next two weeks. The impressive striker, who also missed the 1-0 win against Japan, scored all the goals in the 3-0 defeat of India in the first-leg. But with the team in winning form and fully prepared, few will doubt the Saudis chances of progressing - even without the services of their new hero.
In Group C, United Arab Emirates are leading with 9 points from three matches and need only a draw against Jordan on home soil in Dubai to advance. Under French-born former Senegal coach Bruno Metsu, the Middle Eastern side defeated closest contenders Oman 2-1 in Amman last month to keep up their 100-percent winning record.
The qualifying situation in Group F also seems crystal-clear with Qatar on top with 9 points, 6 points clear of Uzbekistan and Hong Kong. Coach Dzemaludin Musovic's charges will now entertain point-less bottom side Bangladesh, whom they trounced 4-1 in the first head-to-head with a chance to seal their place.
A Chinese puzzle
While the three leading teams will be hoping to seal up their spots, a group of other favourites will be desperate to win their upcoming matches and get back on track toward an all-important place in the finals.
Group E is arguably the trickiest as no teams' chances look certain. Iraq and China lead with six points while Singapore and Palestine are not far off the pace with three apiece.
China will play their second leg against Singapore knowing that a win will build their lead but a defeat could possibly see them sink as far as third place. Their 1-0 victory against Singapore last month looked unconvincing as the 2004 Asian Cup runners-up only had blushes saved by a last-minute spot kick from German-based midfielder Shao Jiayi. Their profligacy in front of goal looked the biggest problem as they failed to convert the many chances they created over 90 minutes.
Singapore's defensive and counter-attacking strategy proved effective against Iraq, who they defeated 2-0. And the same approach nearly worked again in the first leg against China. This fact will surely not be lost on China coach Zhu Guanghu as he works out his tactical formations for Wednesday's test.
In some good news for the Chinese, midfielder Zheng Zhi is back from suspension to reinforce the attack and coach Zhu will be able to field a full-strength side. Energie Cottbus man Shao Jiayi told FIFA.com that he believes his team will have few problems. "We were the better side last time and we will prove it again in this match. We are a better in many ways so I am 100-percent confident we will win."
Matchday 4 fixtures
2007 AFC Asian Cup Preliminaries
Wednesday 6 September
Yemen v Japan (Sana'a, YEM)
Saudi Arabia v India (Jeddah, KSA)
Syria v Iran (Damascus, SYR)
Korea Republic v Chinese Taipei (Seoul, KOR)
UAE v Jordan (Dubai, UAE)
Oman v Pakistan (Muscat, OMA)
Kuwait v Australia Kuwait (City, KUW)
Iraq v Palestine (Al Ain, UAE)
Singapore v China (National Stadium, SIN)
Qatar v Bangladesh (Doha, QAT)
Hong Kong v Uzbekistan (Hong Kong Stadium, HKG)