On paper it looks as though Asia's qualifying campaign for the FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup in Marseille this July will be easier than for the actual FIFA World Cup™, given that six teams are battling it out for three places, rather than 43 for 4.5 berths.
As recent history shows, however, no Asian qualifier for a FIFA event will be without drama. And, with five of the continent's best joining hosts United Arab Emirates (UAE) in Dubai between 6-10 May, this one promises to be no exception.
The favourites are defending champions and hosts UAE, who are targeting nothing other than booking their second consecutive appearance at the finals in Marseille.
The hosts, under the tutelage of Brazilian Marcelo Mendes, can take heart from their history-making debut performance last year as they emerged as champions. Their hopes of repeating the feat this time around received a further boost with a relatively kind draw, which saw them pitted against China and Uzbekistan.
The hosts' supreme confidence, however, did little to concern China coach Rodrigo Stockler Freitas, who believes his side are more than capable of mounting a serious challenge against their rivals this time around.
"Our players are technically as good as their Asian counterparts but they are still lacking international experience," said the former Brazilian striker, who almost guided China to a place at the semi-finals in last year's qualifying competition. "We can certainly make up the difference with good preparation."
Clash of the titans
Elsewhere, Group B features two of Asia's heavyweights, with Iran locking horns against Japan in a crunch match, while the Philippines are also looking to make an impact in their second qualifying campaign.
As the only Asian team to have played in every of the past three FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup finals, Japan are one of the continent's top beach soccer sides. They even surprised their own supporters in the inaugural tournament in 2005, when they reached the semi-finals only to be defeated by eventual winners France.
Since then, their showing in the continental arena has been less convincing as they failed to win gold in Asia's qualifying competition in 2006 and 2007. The qualifiers in Dubai this year, however, will provide them with a chance to turn things around.
While a place in last four should be well within their grasp, Japan be looking for a victory against Iran in order to avoid a semi-final clash with the victors of Group A. However, the Japanese can draw inspiration from their 8-6 victory over the Iranians in the semi-final stage last year.