Old rivalries are set to resume in Asia as familiar opponents lock horns tomorrow in Matchday 5 of the continent's final round of qualifying for the FIFA World Cup South Africa 2010™. With the qualifying campaign reaching the midway mark, all contenders are determined to secure three points and enhance their qualifying chances, FIFA.com takes a closer look at the intriguing pairings.
Most eyes will be on Japan and Australia, who are currently Group A's top two teams. Australia, the only team to have kept a perfect record so far, leads Japan by two points. An away win will vastly strengthen the Socceroos' grip on the section, yet a defeat will see their Japanese rivals move to the top of the standings.
It is Australia that will enter the match having a mental edge, with their 3-1 win over Japan at Germany 2006 still fresh in the minds of both protagonists. Boasting the highest quota of European-based players in Asia, coach Pim Verbeek is confident that his team are capable of repeating the feat of three years ago. "My players are experienced in international football and the team can count on their mental strength and physical possibility," said the Dutchman with confidence. His remarks, however, did little to daunt his opposite number Takeshi Okada, who has spent the last five weeks preparing the team for the crunch tie. "Pim may be putting pressure on me but I don't buy it," he said. "We have done our best in terms of preparation and strategy."
At the bottom of the group, Uzbekistan play hosts to Bahrain in a game which neither side can afford to lose. Having garnered just a single point from three games each, the two teams are already on the verge of crashing out and only maximum points in this contest will reignite already slim hopes. The Central Asians have spent much of January preparing, with coach Mirdjalal Kasimov optimistic of obtaining a good result. "We have played many warms-up and we have watched videos of Bahrain's recent matches," says Kasimov. Not surprisingly, Milan Macala, whose Bahrain side overpowered Uzbekistan in a qualifying play-off four years ago, also sees the game as a must-win. "Everything is still open but it is important that we gain three points against them," stated Macala.
Iran-Korea Republic, Tehran
The match at Tehran's Azadi Stadium is crucial to both teams in more ways than one. Firstly, the match provides Ali Daei's Team Melli with a chance to upstage the leading Taeguk Warriors, who are two points clear of them as things stand. The qualifier will be the 22nd encounter between the two nations and with each claiming eights wins and five draws in previous meetings, the chance to take a mental edge is in the offing. The Azadi has long been a fortress for the Iranians, who remain undefeated in 30 matches played at the legendary stadium since October 2004. However Huh Jung-Moo's side, who were recently held 1-1 by Syria, will undoubtedly tighten their defense to keep the hosts at bay. "We gave the Syrians too many chances and we mustn't repeat the mistakes against Iran," says the Korea Republic coach.
Korea DPR-Saudi Arabia, Pyongyang
The hosts Korea DPR appear, at least on paper, to be the underdogs against Saudi Arabia, having yet to win any of the previous six matches between the two nations. However, the ever-progressive North Koreans, who reached the last eight at England 1966, have announced their re-emergence in this qualifying campaign. The two teams are level on four points but it is the East Asians that shade their opponents on goal difference. The home side will count on the goal-scoring form of captain Hong Yong-Jo, who is aiming at netting his fifth goal of the campaign against the visitors. However, the attacking-minded Saudis are not expected to just sit back defending, with 2007 AFC Player of the Year Yasser Al-Qahtani leading the attacking line.
Players to watch
Tim Cahill, who scored two late goals against Japan at Germany 2006, may be one of the key attacking options for Pim Verbeek, especially given the Everton midfielder's famous aerial ability. However, Scott McDonald's recent scoring form for Celtic also won't have gone unnoticed by the Dutch coach. The 25-year-old says he is looking to start against Japan and break his international duck: "It is about time, and there would be no better time to do it than in Yokohama," he told FIFA.com.
"Korea Republic is a good team but Iranian media has exaggerated our rivals. I have seen their friendly matches against Syria and Bahrain and in my opinion, they are not as powerful as we have been led to believe," Ali Daei, Iran head coach.