All eyes will be on Australia tomorrow as the Socceroos' U-23s join the AFC's 19 other lowest-ranked teams in the continent's preliminary qualifying round for the Olympic Football Tournament Beijing 2008 .
Few will envisage any problems for the Aussies in a seemingly mismatched two-legged tie against regional minnows Chinese Tapai, but theirs is just one of 10 duels taking place, with the winners advancing to a second qualifying stage to do battle with the continent's top-ranked 14 teams.
Although their place in this group of 20 is solely a reflection on Australia's lack of continental experience, the boys from Down Under will nonetheless be keen to make an immediate and emphatic impact on the continental stage. They will also be mindful of the fact that, while the senior Socceroos made short work of qualifying for the AFC Asian Cup finals following an excellent 2006 FIFA World Cup™ campaign, their youth teams have disappointed thus far. Indeed, Australia's U-17 and U-20 sides both fell at the Asian qualifying stage last year, missing out on FIFA's global showpieces in Korea Republic and Canada respectively.
Now, the baton is passed to the country's prospective Olympians and, despite the failures of their junior counterparts, the Aussies' U-23 team should encounter few problems when they open their qualifying campaign against Chinese Taipei at Hindmarsh Stadium, Adelaide before traveling to the island for the return a week later. Nevertheless, Australia coach and FFA Technical Director Robert Baan is taking nothing for granted, saying: "We don't know a great deal about Chinese Taipei but we will certainly not be underestimating our opponents."
Assuming that Australia make it through, it will then become altogether tougher, with a section comprised by Iran, Saudi Arabia and the winners of Jordan-Kyrgystan awaiting them in Group D. Baan will hope that his squad, which is made up mainly of A-League players, including Sydney FC's Mark Milligan - the youngest member of the Socceroos squad at Germany 2006 - will prove up to that task, and has handed Milligan the captain's armband.
For his part, the young midfielder is merely looking forward to once again sampling an atmosphere he has experienced on several previous occasions with his club. "The people in Adelaide are great football supporters and Hindmarsh Stadium is a great football venue," he said, "so hopefully fans will come out in force and get behind the Australian team in Wednesday's game."
Of the four central Asian teams involved in the preliminaries, Uzbekistan are widely tipped to emerge triumphant from their first-leg meeting against regional rivals Tajikistan . Having claimed gold at the 1994 Asian Games, this former Soviet republic has cemented its place among the continent's most formidable outfits, and will hope its U-23 team can now usher in a bright new era.
Turkmenistan will also go into their tie with Thailand full of confidence, while Kyrgystan have been given a tough assignment against Jordan, whose U-20 side reached the last four at November's AFC Youth Championship to book a place at the FIFA U-20 World Cup for the first time.
Equally difficult to predict is Singapore's match-up against Pakistan, and the same could be said of Bangladesh's tie versus Hong Kong. Singapore will be hope to draw inspiration from their senior side's successful defence of the ASEAN Football Championship title on Sunday, while Bangladesh - whose senior team lost to Hong Kong home and away during qualifying for the Asian Cup - will be desperate to avenge those defeats at U-23 level.
Preliminary Round first leg fixtures:
Wednesday 7 February
Myanmar v India
Jordan v Kyrgystan
Turkmenistan v Thailand
Vietnam v Afghanistan
Uzbekistan v Tajikistan
Singapore v Pakistan
Bangladesh v Hong Kong
Yemen v Palestine
Indonesia v Maldives
Australia v Chinese Taipei