A little less than a year after Iraq's fairytale AFC Asian Cup triumph, the stage was set for the next AFC Asian Cup at Qatar 2011, when the preliminary draw took place at the Aspire Dome in Doha on Thursday.
Under the revamped format, six teams, namely reigning Asian champions Iraq, runners-up Saudi Arabia, third-placed Korea Republic, hosts Qatar and winners of the AFC Challenge Cups of 2008 and 2010, will be guaranteed automatic progression to the continental showpiece. The other twenty teams, divided into five groups of four, will have to battle it out for the remaining ten spots at the finals, with the top two sides advancing from each group.
The draw brought some old friends together, with Japan again locking horns with Bahrain, while Australia cross swords with Kuwait for the second consecutive time.
Japan and Bahrain have been drawn together like magnets in recent years. The two sides clashed in the 2004 AFC Asian Cup semi-finals, in which the East Asians progressed with a hard-won extra-time victory. From there, Japan went on to prevail over the Gulf side in Asia's final qualifying round for Germany 2006, winning both at home and away. However, Milan Macala's Bahrain showed they are more than capable of mounting a serious challenge to the Japanese, as they pulled off a shock 1-0 win over Japan at home in the third qualifying round for South Africa 2010, only to see Takeshi Okada's Japan bounce back with a 1-0 win in the return match.
Extraordinarily, the pair were drawn together again in the final qualifying round for South Africa 2010, which kicks off in September. The players will know their opponents' faces better than their own before long!
This will be the second successive Asian Cup qualifying campaign in which Australia face Kuwait. Although the Kuwaitis missed out on the 2007 finals, they surprisingly defeated eventual quarter-finalists Australia 2-0 in Kuwait City in qualifying, and Pim Verbeek's Socceroos will not be taking the men from the Gulf lightly.
Syria, who came so close to overtaking the UAE for a place in Asia's final qualifying round for South Africa 2010, will pose the biggest threat to Group D favorites China, while Vietnam will also be aiming to cause a major upset, having sensationally stormed to the last eight at the 2007 AFC Asian Cup as co-hosts.
Three-time Asian champions Iran are the undisputed favourites in Group E, but Ali Daei's side will have to be wary of Jordan, who have stunned Team Melli on more than one occasion in recent years.
Uzbekistan and the UAE, who both figured in the previous continental finals, are widely tipped to take the top two qualifying places in Group C. But India, hosts of both the 2008 and 2010 AFC Challenge Cups, will be aiming to win the Cup with the help of home advantage, a result which would secure Bob Houghton's side an automatic place at Qatar 2011 even if they should fail in the qualifying campaign.
Groups for the qualifying competition for the 2011 AFC Asian Cup:
Group A: Japan, Bahrain, Hong Kong, Yemen
Group B: Australia, Indonesia, Oman, Kuwait
Group C: Uzbekistan, UAE, Malaysia, India
Group D: Vietnam, China, Syria, Lebanon
Group E: Iran, Thailand, Jordan, Singapore