Australia and Japan face a crunch qualifier tomorrow with the winner well placed to make the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™, while Korea Republic travel to Tehran's intimidating Azadi Stadium to tackle Iran.
With only the top two teams from each of the two Asian groups automatically qualifying for South Africa, a loss could prove costly. A victory for Australia though would put them on 12 points and in a strong position to make their second consecutive FIFA World Cup finals, with three of their remaining four games at home.
They lead Group 1 ahead of Japan on seven points and Qatar, who are not playing Wednesday, on four. Bahrain and Uzbekistan, who face each other, each have one point and will be desperate for victory to keep their slim hopes alive. The Socceroos go into their game in Yokohama with a team packed with European-based players, although Blackburn Rovers' Brett Emerton is out with a serious cruciate knee ligament injury.
Harry Kewell is also missing after failing to make his expected comeback from an abdominal hernia operation with his Turkish club Galatasaray at the weekend. But influential Blackburn midfielder Vince Grella is back in the fold, adding an extra dimension to Pim Verbeek's experienced squad.
"They have had a long preparation ... we have no preparation, so that's a big advantage for them," said Verbeek. "But our advantage is of course that my players are very experienced in international football. They know how to handle it."
Celtic star Shunsuke Nakamura will once again be Japan's lynchpin and has vowed to play "ugly," knowing three points are critical. "I don't mind if we have to get ugly. We will go for three points," the 30-year-old midfielder said.
Nakamura and his teammates still remember how Japan lost to Australia 3-1 at the group stage at Germany 2006 when all the Socceroo goals came in the final nine minutes. The Blue Samurai avenged that crushing defeat when they beat Australia on penalties after a 1-1 draw in the 2007 AFC Asian Cup quarter-finals in Hanoi, but the 2006 loss still rankles. "We will never repeat the same mistake," said Nakamura.
In Group 2, Iran has warned Korea Republic to expect no favours from a passionate 100,000-strong crowd in Tehran. Ali Daei's team need to ensure they win, having managed just five points from three games so far to lag South Korea who have seven points.
South Korea have not won in three previous visits to Tehran and Javad Nekounam, the first Iranian to play in La Liga, can't see that changing, warning Korea's top star Park Ji-Sung that even Old Trafford can't compare to the Azadi.
"Even Park Ji-sung, with his high level of experience, will face a different kind of atmosphere in Azadi," he told reporters. "They have never before played under the pressure of 100,000 passionate fans. It will be hell for them."
South Korea though have the psychological advantage, knowing they beat Iran in the quarter-finals of the 2007 AFC Asian Cup. In the other group game, Saudi Arabia travel to Pyongyang to play a North Korean team looking to reach their first FIFA World Cup since 1966.
As well as the top four teams qualifying for South Africa, the two who finish third can still go through if they win a play-off, and then defeat Oceania winners New Zealand.