Asia's top teams get their final push towards the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ underway on Saturday, with Japan facing a tricky encounter in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia battling Ali Daei's Iran.
Of the 46 Asian Football Confederation nations who dreamed of making the finals in 2010, just 10 remain in the hunt: Australia, Bahrain, Japan, Iran, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the two Koreas, UAE and Uzbekistan. Four will qualify automatically, with the third-placed teams in the two groups of five playing off for the right to meet the Oceania representative for a spot at the global showpiece.
Japan, one of the continent's major football powers and a team that has qualified for the last three FIFA World Cups, goes into its clash against Bahrain in Manama desperate to take all three points. "As I have always said, this match will be the most important for us," said coach Takeshi Okada. "I think it will be a tough match. But if we overcome this, our team can step up further. So we want to take the first match no matter what."
Okada hasn't had a particularly good lead-up, with a 3-1 home defeat by Uruguay last month raising concerns. But with Celtic's Shunsuke Nakamura back in the fold, albeit with a right ankle injury, he is confident. "
Bahrain are in better shape, beating Burkina Faso and the United Arab Emirates in warm-ups. With Australia playing a friendly against the Netherlands on Saturday, the other Group A match sees Qatar take on Uzbekistan in Doha. Qatar are without four key players: the injured Musad Al Hamad and Yousef Ahmed, and the suspended Wisam Rizq and Hussain Yasser.
Coach Jorge Fossati insists he has a strong complement of reserves. "I know how important these players are to Qatar's performance, and I was really hoping they would be able to play in this match," the Uruguayan told reporters. "But as a coach I am expected to look for solutions, and I will not call new players, I will make do with the reserves I have."
Plenty at stake
In Group B, plenty is at stake in Riyadh for heavyweights Saudi Arabia and Iran. With Korea Republic, Asia's most successful team on the world stage, also in the group but not playing on Saturday, dropping points could prove costly.
Iranian coach Ali Daei said he had a decent squad capable of going all the way. "The current group of players are the best in Iranian football, they are highly motivated, ambitious, and their only aim is the success of the national team," he told reporters. "Saudi Arabia is our traditional opponent, with good players and team composition, but we have prepared ourselves well for this encounter."
The Saudis are aiming to qualify for their fifth consecutive FIFA World Cup, and coach Nasser Al-Johar is expecting his players to deliver the goods. "We want to win this group, and book qualification early," he told FIFA.com.
In the other Group B game, emerging power United Arab Emirates play Korea DPR in Abu Dhabi, the oil-rich sheikhdom still celebrating after Emirati billionaire Sulaiman al-Fahim bought Manchester City.
The final phase of Asian qualifying features 10 rounds of matches, culminating in June next year.
McDonald's FIFA World Cup Predictor
Austria-France, Argentina-Paraguay and Chile-Brazil are among the matches on the opening round of the McDonald's FIFA World Cup Predictor. If you haven't already, be sure to sign up and take a shot at winning a fanstastic trip to South Africa 2010.