With Australia, Japan and Korea Republic booking qualification for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ with two rounds to spare, the focus in Asia turns to the teams vying for the remaining qualifying spot and the two third-place berths when the battle resumes on Wednesday in the penultimate round.
In Group A, the competition is limited to jousting for third place, with Bahrain currently in the box seat. While an away win against Australia will definitely seal them third, a point will be all but enough unless Qatar come away with a massive win in Japan.
The competition in Group B looks set to go down to the wire, regardless of any results in this round. Saudi Arabia have their destiny firmly in their hands, where an away win against Korea Republic will move them into second place ahead of the make-or-break encounter against second-placed Korea DPR in the closing game. Iran, languishing in fourth with seven points, are left with little option but to claim maximum points in their home match against the United Arab Emirates in order to salvage a lifeline.
The big match
Korea Republic - Saudi Arabia, Seoul
Despite their qualification, hosts Korea Republic will provide a massive test at home to Saudi Arabia. For South Korean coach Huh Jung-Moo, a home win will be sweet revenge against the Sons of Deserts, who emerged victorious in the sides' previous two legs in qualifying for the 2006 FIFA World Cup. But the Saudis, under new Portuguese coach Jose Peseiro, enter the contest in winning form after consecutive wins over Iran and UAE, while an impressive 4-1 win in a friendly international away to China last week suggests they have rediscovered their touch in front of goal.
The other headliner
Iran - United Arab Emirates, Tehran
With just seven points garnered from six games, the three-time Asian champions are arguably the Asian zone's biggest underperformers. For new coach Afshin Ghotbi, the key problem remains the team's finishing abilities, which saw them fail to convert a number of clear-cut goalscoring opportunities in last weekend's goalless draw against Korea DPR. Nevertheless a comfortable home victory against the winless UAE is well within the Iranian's grasp should they re-find their confidence in the opposition penalty area.
Australia - Bahrain, Sydney
Despite completing their bid for South Africa 2010 qualification in Doha on the weekend, Australian coach Pim Verbeek has vowed no let-up against the Bahrainis. Having maintained an unblemished record against the West Asians in all three previous meetings, the Dutchman has stated his hunger to maintain his side's momentum. Visitors Bahrain are expected to go hard in attack in the knowledge that an away point against Australia is likely to seal third place in the section. Despite missing the services of the key striker A'ala Hubail through injury and midfielder Abdulla Fatadi through suspension, a 4-0 win over Jordan in a recent friendly has instilled Milan Macala's men with self-belief.
Japan - Qatar, Yokohama
Playing their last game away against Japan, Bruno Metsu's Qatar know that nothing less than three points will keep their qualification hopes alive. But the hosts, who have set their aim on a semi-final place at the 2010 FIFA World Cup, are looking to top the qualifying group and comfortably overwhelmed the Qataris 3-0 in the first meeting last year.
Player to watch
Despite facing formidable hosts Korea Republic, Saudi Arabia captain Yasser Al Qahtani has history on his side, having played an inspirational role in his nation's pivotal 2-0 home win over the Taeguk Warriors in qualifying for Germany 2006. The former AFC Player of the Year appears to have rekindled his form of old and his drive from midfield is likely to be fundamental if the Saudis are to claim the three points they so desperately desire.