Asian qualifying for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ enters the final stages on Saturday 28 March as eight of the remaining ten teams resume battle on Matchday 6. With group leaders Australia and Korea Republic both sitting this round of fixtures out, their rivals are provided with a precious chance to move to the top of the standings.
In Group A, second-placed Japan will move a point clear of the Socceroos should they defeat Bahrain at home. At the same time, three points against the visiting United Arab Emirates will send Korea DPR to the top of Group B, while a home win against Saudi Arabia will see Iran return to the top two.
The big match
Iran-Saudi Arabia, Tehran
The legendary Azadi stadium will witness two of Asia's traditional powerhouses go head-to-head in what is viewed by both make-or-break contest. The encounter possesses all the elements necessary for a classic FIFA World Cup qualifier. Furthermore, it marks the two sides' ninth meeting across five FIFA World Cup qualifying campaigns. Despite Iran's record of three wins and three draws, the Saudis have emerged as the more successful side overall, having progressed to football's global showpiece at Team Melli's expense on three of the past four occasions. Ali Daei's team enter the rematch with two recent friendly wins and a 32-match unbeaten record at home, while coach Jose Peseiro's side travel to Tehran without captain Yasser Al Qahtani, who is ruled out due to suspension.
The other games
Korea DPR-United Arab Emirates, Pyongyang
While Group B's bottom side UAE are desperate for maximum points against Korea DPR, they will be aware of just how difficult extracting them from Pyongyang is sure to be. Coach Dominique Batheney's side will have to overcome the tournament's dark horses and a hostile home crowd to seal their first win in the group. Honours have been even in the previous four qualifying meetings between these two sides, with each claiming a win and two draws. Victory will see the home side take pole position in the group.
This match-up in Tashkent is arguably the most unpredictable of all, given the notoriously inconsistent performances of the two sides. Both have proved more than capable of causing a major upset, with Uzbekistan boasting a 3-0 triumph over Saudi Arabia in last year's third qualifying round. However, both have struggled for consistency, with Qatar found lacking with heavy losses against Australian and Japan, and the underachieving Uzbeks left languishing at the bottom of the standings with a single point.
Having dominated their previous eight meetings against Bahrain with six wins, Japan's tag as favourites in this fixture is beyond dispute. However Bahrain, with two home wins over the East Asians in the past year, have stated their claim as serious contenders. The Gulf side broke their Japanese jinx with a 1-0 win in last March's qualifying round before again stunning the Blue Samurai by the same scoreline in a recent AFC Asian Cup qualifier. Boosted by their win against Uzbekistan in the last game, Milan Macala's side are edging closer to the summit and a win in Japan would see the Bahrainis become genuine challengers for an automatic qualification berth.
Player to watch
If experience counts for anything, Mehdi Mahdavikia's return will surely enhance Iran's hopes of defeating Saudi Arabia in Tehran. The immense knowledge the 31-year-old veteran midfielder has gained in Iran's last three qualifying campaigns is sure to be invaluable for Ali Daei's new-look Team Melli. With captain Karim Bagheri unavailable after he announced his temporary retirement and Ali Karimi failing to earn a call-up, the leadership burden will fall on the shoulders of the Eintracht Frankfurt man.
"This match with Bahrain is our fifth qualifier and the one we have to go for. We'll take risks where we have to. I'm only thinking about winning the match, nothing else," Takeshi Okada, Japan head coach.