The Asian Zone qualifying for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ has reached the halfway point, and the two final round groups are wide open after this week's action. The top of the table clashes in Group 1 and 2 ended in draws, with leaders Australia and Korea Republic coming away with a point from their visits to Japan and Iran respectively.
Bahrain left it late to defeat hosts Uzbekistan 1-0 and leapfrog into the third place in Group 1, while Korea DPR beat Saudi Arabia by the same scoreline to move within a point behind their neighbours in Group 2. There is still plenty to play for in both groups, although some of the teams face uphill tasks to keep their qualification hopes alive.
Group 1: Stalemate enough for the Aussies
Australia remain on top thanks to a hard-fought goalless draw with Japan in Yokohama. Having collected ten points from four games, Pim Verbeek's men also confirmed their status as the meanest defence in the continent, with the Aussies yet to concede a goal so far in the final qualifying round. With three of their four remaining matches at home, the Socceroos are starting to look comfortable. Following a break on the sixth matchday next month, the Aussies will then take on bottom-placed Uzbekistan in April at home and the form book suggests they will further consolidate pole position.
Japan, who are chasing the leaders by two points, cannot afford to relax despite a four-point gap above Bahrain and Qatar. Takeshi Okada's charges will have to raise their game if they are to claim first place in March, when they welcome Bahrain to Saitama. Should they manage to do so, the remaining three games in June will start to look an easier prospect for the Blue Samurai.
Although Bahrain emerged in contention thanks to a last-gasp winner from Mahmood Abdulahman against struggling Uzbekistan, they still face a tough journey ahead. Milan Macala's men will have to survive a tough day at the office in Japan next month, before they come back home to take on Qatar.
Uzbekistan will entertain Qatar in Tashkent next month, with the problem for the hosts being their poor form at home that to date has seen disastrous 1-0 losses against Australia and Bahrain. Even worse, they have registered only one goal in four games, with only Maksim Shatskikh scoring in a 1-1 draw with Japan back in October. The goal drought has also coincided with some sloppy defending, most notably on display in their 3-0 defeat by Qatar in the group opener.
Group 2: Two Koreas on top
Korea Republic fought back to claim a 1-1 draw with Iran at the Azadi Stadium and remain on top of the table with eight points. In fact, the Taeguk Warriors are now in the driving seat, as they play three of four remaining games at home with another Korean derby looming in two months in Seoul. The South Koreans have scored more than any other nation in the final qualifying round, eight goals, a surprising statistic considering they had been criticised in some quarters for their lack of finishing.
Their neighbours Korea DPR are also on the up after defeating Saudi Arabia for the first time in seven attempts to leap into the runners-up position. The historic 1-0 victory in Pyongyang not only put them in touching distance of the group leaders, but gave them a realistic hope of reaching the FIFA World Cup for the first time since the Chollima famously stormed into the quarter-finals at England 1966. The North Koreans are set to take the lead in the group provided they can beat the United Arab Emirates in Pyongyang next month.
Meanwhile, the Middle Eastern duo of Iran and Saudi Arabia are well off the pace following a series of disappointing performances recently. While the Iranians were held to two 1-1 draws in as many games, the Saudis suffered back-to-back defeats against the South and North Koreans to remain in fourth. The match-up between the two West Asian powerhouses in Tehran on the forthcoming matchday is shaping as a must-win for both nations.