Football fans across Asia will be treated to an intriguing night of football on Sunday when the decisive return legs of the continent's first round of qualifying for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ take place. With Thailand already through to the second stage following an emphatic 13-2 aggregate win over Macau, the remaining 32 teams will have to battle it out to join them.
Central Asian power Uzbekistan, who beat Chinese Taipei 6-2 on aggregate in their preliminary qualifier for the previous FIFA World Cup, emulated their feat by firing nine unanswered goals past the visiting islanders in Tashkent for the biggest win of the opening matchday. With pride at stake, Chinese Taipei will unquestionably give it their all in the return fixture, which will take place in front of their own fans, but few will bet against the former Soviet Republic easing through.
In recording 7-0 wins over Pakistan and Myanmar respectively, the newly-crowned Asian champions Iraq and China PR also put the two-legged ties effectively beyond doubt. China's new coach Vladimir Petrovic, who got his tenure off to a dream start, may even afford a couple of his younger charges a place in the starting line-up for the second leg, which will be staged on neutral ground in Malaysia: "We are thinking of fielding some young players to give them more international exposure and experience," he revealed.
Bahrain and Korea DPR, who both reached Asia's last eight in the qualifying campaign for Germany 2006, should have few problems in their return meetings with Malaysia and Mongolia, against whom they cruised to the same 4-1 victories earlier this month.
All to play for
Perhaps the most evenly balanced tie could be the clash between Vietnam and United Arab Emirates. The two sides have developed a strong rivalry since July's AFC Asian Cup, when the South-east Asians pulled off a 2-0 reverse of UAE, a result that helped the co-hosts storm into the quarter-finals for the first time in their history. It was the West Asians, however, who stole the show in the first leg, Basheer Al Hammadi scoring the only goal eleven minutes from time.
To compliment his young charges with more experience, Vietnam's Austrian coach Alfred Riedl called up veteran midfielder Tran Truong Giang, who helped his country to bronze in the South-east Asian Football Championship in 2002. Truong Giang will likely form a partnership alongside emerging talent Nguyen Vu Phong, who scored five of Vietnam's nine goals in their qualifying campaign for the Men's Olympic Football Tournament Beijing 2008..
Neighbouring Cambodia will be hoping to pull off an upset against Turkmenistan. Having long been regarded as underdogs, even in the regional competition, the minnows defended gallantly in the first leg meeting at the National Olympic Stadium of Phnom Penh, only allowing their formidable rivals to claim a slender win. With nothing to lose, Cambodia will be all out to swing the balance in their favour on Sunday.
Elsewhere, Bangladesh, following a goalless draw at home to Tajikistan, will enter their second leg seeking a score-draw, which will be enough to see them through on away goals, or better.
Asian qualifying zone, first round, second leg fixtures:
Afghanistan - Syria
Malaysia v Bahrain
Tajikistan v Bangladesh
Turkmenistan v Cambodia
Myanmar v China PR
Jordan v Kyrgyzstan
India v Lebanon
DPR Korea v Mongolia
Nepal v Oman
Iraq v Pakistan
Singapore v Palestine
Qatar v Sri Lanka
Hong Kong v Timor Leste
Chinese Taipei v Uzbekistan
United Arab Emirates v Vietnam
Maldives Republic v Yemen