Getting through the AFC Asian Cup qualifying round was never going to be easy. The task this time around has been made even harder with the continent's five participating teams in FIFA World Cup™ finalists back among the contenders.
The five teams, namely Korea Republic, Japan, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the AFC's newest member Australia, missed out on the second round of fixtures on 1 March in preparation for world football's showpiece event. With only Australia reaching the Round of 16, the others will be looking to restore their pride when the continental competition begins.
Four out of the five teams will go into Day Three on 16 August with different coaches to the ones that patrolled the touchlines at Germany 2006. Only Saudi Arabia's Marcos Paqueta remains. For these new managers and their reshuffled squads, their first official international appearance since the past FIFA World Cup will be a good chance to test themselves.
All eyes will be on Group D favourites Australia when they entertain Kuwait at Sydney's Aussie Stadium on Wednesday. Caretaker coach Graham Arnold has been given a tough task as his team will have to do without a number of overseas-based players including the likes of Mark Viduka, Harry Kewell, Tim Cahill, Marco Bresciano and Mark Schwarzer due to the imminent start of Europe's domestic campaigns.
Fully aware of the difficulties his charges have, coach Arnold readily admitted that he was under no illusions about Kuwait's ability to cause an upset, but stressed the team would still be able to produce a good result in front of their supporters. "Just because there is no Kewell, Viduka or Bresciano, it doesn't mean we are under strength. It is not going to be easy against Kuwait and the players know it, but they will be ready."
Osim aiming to be big in Japan
Compared to Australia, the other four FIFA World Cup participants have relatively straightforward tasks. Group A favourites and current holders Japan should have few problems when they face Yemen at Niigata Stadium. Japan prepared for this match by defeating Trinidad and Tobago 2-0 in a friendly on 9 August in Ivica Osim's first game in charge.
Japan's fellow group A contenders Saudi Arabia travel to Kolkota to face India under new English coach Bobby Houghton. Despite their exit after group stage with only one point from three matches in Germany 2006, Paqueta's outfit recently proved their class with a 1-0 friendly win against Bahrain last week and few would question their chances against India.
In Group B, a new-look Iran team are expected to gain all three points against Syria in the formidable Azadi Stadium in Tehran while Korea Republic, under Dutchman Pim Verbeek, go into their fixture with Chinese Taipei as strong favourites.
A hard test for China
Having been defeated by Iraq 2-1 in March, China cannot afford another slip-up on Wednesday when they take on Singapore, who surprised many by defeating Iraq 2-0 in their first game.
All four teams in Group E have claimed three points after two matches. For 2004 AFC Asian Cup runners-up China, it is a good chance to go to the section's summit in the face of intense pressure from the press and the public to win.