Asia's qualifying for the Men's Olympic Football Tournament London 2012 resumes on Wednesday after a three-month hiatus, with the twelve remaining contenders seeking to continue their winning form heading into the third round openers.
The three group winners will be rewarded with automatic qualification for the global showpiece as was the case four years ago. However, there is an added chance for the three runners-up who will battle against each other in a play-off, with the winners advancing to meet the fourth African representative.
With so much at stake, the opening match-ups look set to capture the imagination of supporters from across the continent. Korea Republic begin their bid for a ninth Olympic appearance against Oman, while Mexico 1968 bronze medallists Japan are expected to make light work of Malaysia. Athens 2004 semi-finalists Iraq cross swords with central Asian powers Uzbekistan, while Australia play hosts to United Arab Emirates. Please join FIFA.com as we preview the enticing match-ups.
Having dominated the continental stage for so long, coach Hong Myung-Bo's side enter the home game as undisputed favourites against Oman in Group A. And the history books support their favouritism, with the Koreans prevailing 5-2 in their 2002 Asian Games meeting, before running out 3-1 victors in a friendly this June. Despite missing their European-based stars such as Sunderland striker Ji Dong-Won and Wolfsburg midfielder Koo Ja-Cheol, the home team still look a formidable side. Driving the midfield is in-form Gyeongnam FC playmaker Yoon Bitgaram, while Jeju United defender Hong Jeong-Ho is the cornerstone of the back-line.
Oman, for their part, have proved more than capable of doing the unexpected. En route to this stage, the Omanis eliminated 2008 hosts China PR 4-1 on aggregate, courtesy of three goals from star striker Hussain Al Hadhri. They went on to clinch the U-23 Gulf Cup title in August, a proud achievement which provides a further morale-boost ahead of the Korea Republic test.
The other attractions
Group A's other match pits hosts Saudi Arabia against Qatar, who have set their sights on a third Olympic appearance. Under newly-appointed Brazilian Paulo Autuori, the Qataris have undergone a two-week training camp during which they played a series of warm-ups, including a 2-1 loss to Iraq. Despite the result, Autuori is confident that his talented crop will hit form when they take to the field at Riyadh's King Fahd International Stadium against the Saudis.
That friendly outcome provides Group B's Iraq with a timely boost heading to Tashkent. Spearheaded by striking prodigy Amjad Radhi, who scored a brace as they overcame Iran 2-1 on aggregate in the previous round, the west Asians are determined to open brightly against the Uzbeks, who are aiming to book their first-ever Olympic berth. In the section's other match, Aurelio Vidmar's Australia welcome United Arab Emirates captained by former AFC Youth Player of the Year Ahmed Khalil.
Elsewhere, Group C favourites Japan are targeting no fewer than three points against Malaysia at home but the visitors will spare no efforts to get a satisfying result from the opener. Eyeing an away point against the hosts, the visitors are likely to stick to their resilient style which saw them undo Lebanon 2-1 to progress into the last 12. In the other group match, Bahrain face a tough task against Syria, who will play their home game in Jordan's capital Amman. Syria have already shown what they are capable of by hammering Turkmenistan 6-2 on aggregate in the previous stage. But the Bahrainis, blessed with four senior national team players, including defender Rashed Al Hooti, are confident to salvage at least a share of the points.
Player to watch
Having netted five times as Australia fired seven unanswered goals past Yemen in their last outings, Jason Hoffman's goalscoring form could be key as the Olyroos seek to get past UAE.
7 – Should Australia and Korea Republic reach London 2012 it will mark their seventh consecutive appearance at the global showpiece.
What they said
"Syria are a good team full of talented players so our game will not be easy against them. But we will take the game against them and fight to win it. This is our first game and it is very important for us to get it started the right way," Bahrain coach Salman Shareeda
Asian Olympic qualifying, third stage, matchday 1 fixtures:
Group A: Korea Republic-Oman, Saudi Arabia-Qatar
Group B: Uzbekistan-Iraq, Australia-United Arab Emirates
Group C: Syria-Bahrain, Japan-Malaysia