Journey commences for Asian showpiece

Qualifying for the 2011 AFC Asian Cup kicks off on Wednesday with China under the microscope after a miserable 2008, which contrasts to heavyweights Australia and Japan who are expected to breeze through their respective campaigns.

China, with Yin Tiesheng as interim coach after Serbian Vladimir Petrovic quit when the team crashed out of 2010 World Cup contention last June, face a tricky first game away to Syria. Yin has been put in charge only for their opening two Asian Cup qualifiers but knows the side need a win to boost their confidence.

I will be in charge of the team for a short period, and I hope I can instil a fighting spirit into the team.
said China coach Yin Tiesheng

He has vowed to restore discipline. "I will be in charge of the team for a short period, and I hope I can instil a fighting spirit into the team," Yin said. "Maybe this will be the most noticeable change I can bring to the team."

Lebanon and Vietnam are also in their group and play each other Wednesday with only the top two from each group making the finals.

Australia and Japan must go through the motions and qualify for the showpiece in Qatar after failing to shine at the last event in 2007.

Five teams though will sit back and watch the action knowing they have already booked their tickets. Qatar qualify automatically as hosts while Iraq, Saudi Arabia and South Korea are assured of their places after finishing as the top three teams in 2007 tournament.

India have qualified for the finals for the first time since 1984 after winning the AFC Challenge Cup last year, an event featuring second tier Asian nations. The winner of the 2010 tournament will also go through to the finals.

Australia, whose initiation in Asian football after defecting from the Oceania confederation was at the 2007 Asian Cup, are in group B that also includes 1980 champions Kuwait, Indonesia and Oman. They don't open their campaign until later in the month and will have a chance to scout their opposition when Oman host Indonesia next Monday.

Japan are three-time winners of the Asian Cup and face Yemen in their opener at home next Tuesday. Bahrain and Hong Kong complete their group.

Iran, also three-time champions, host Singapore on Wednesday with nothing short of victory expected from coach Ali Daei. His Singapore counterpart Raddy Avramovic has other ideas, confident his team can make their first ever Asian Cup finals.

"Iran are a physically very strong and compact team and have very fast attacking individuals," he said. "We'll have to keep them out of our penalty box and cut their passing game."

Also in their group are Jordan and Thailand, who clash Wednesday in Amman.

The final group only has three teams - Uzbekistan, UAE, and Malaysia. India were initially drawn in this group but progressed automatically with their Challenge Cup victory.

Qatar, which successfully hosted the Asian Games in 2006 and boasts top-rate sports facilities, was the only country that bid for the tournament after India and Iran pulled out.

It will be held in January 2011 with the only other FIFA window available, in July and August when the tournament is usually held, considered too hot in the Gulf region. Qatar last played host in 1988 when Saudi Arabia won.