The final round of Asian qualifying reaches its denouement on Wednesday with five teams left battling for the continent's remaining automatic qualifying spot for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ and the two play-off berths.
The competition in Group B remains quite open with three teams vying for the right to become Asia's fourth and final automatic qualifier. Saudi Arabia and Korea DPR are locked in a make-or-break contest in Riyadh, with the winning side advancing to the global showpiece. Both teams will be desperate to win as a draw would allow the fourth-placed Iran to steal second place with an away win against Korea Republic.
The battle in Group A is straightforward with Bahrain needing a point at home against Uzbekistan to seal third place. But the Central Asians, though, can also turn the table should they come away with any win.
The big match
Saudi Arabia-Korea DPR, Riyadh
Trailing behind the East Asians on goal differences, coach Jose Peseiro's Saudi side face the pressure of a must-win scenario. Added to their difficulties for the home side is the absence of creative brothers of Abdoh Ateef and Ahmed Ateef, who are ruled out due to injury and suspension respectively. On the opposing side, the Koreans will draw inspiration from their 1-0 win in the previous leg, and with a point able to see them finish no lower than third place, they will enjoy more tactical options than the Saudis.
The other headliners
Korea Republic-Iran, Seoul
With their backs against the wall, Afshin Ghotbi's Iran are left with little option but to go for broke and try to beat hosts Korea Republic in the hope of securing an automatic qualification berth and avoid the lottery of a play-off. The visitors can expect no let-up from his opposite number Huh Jung-Moo, who vows to field the strongest team despite already securing qualification. Having spent seven years with Korea Republic as an assistant coach, Ghotbi boasts immense knowledge about the opponents. But Korea Republic, who remain undefeated in the final round, will be motivated to protect a proud home record and cap their campaign with a satisfying result at home.
After edging out Uzbekistan in the Asian play-off for Germany 2006, Bahrain will be hoping that history again repeats itself. But the bitter loss four years ago also provides an extra edge to the contest and undoubtedly provides the Central Asians with extra motivation. The underachieving Uzbeks though will be relying on a sudden return to form if they are to win in Manama following recent eratic performances.
For fans across Asia, the game between Group A's two proud qualifiers loses none of its intrigue, despite the fact that the two sides will play without qualifying pressure. Both sides are missing key stars for a variety of reasons with perhaps the visitors suffering the more significant losses to their line-up. While the Socceroos have only been defeated once at home in 28 years in FIFA World Cup qualifying, with Mark Schwarzer also keen to defend an equally proud record that currently extends to seven consecutive clean sheets.
Player to watch
Ali Karimi's form will likely prove to be the key if Iran are to gain maximum points against hosts Korea Republic. The enigmatic former Bayern Munich midfielder played an inspirational role against United Arab Emirates last week scoring the winner following a lengthy absence from the national team set-up.
"Our draw against Korea Republic a week ago was important for us, as we had to get four points in the last two matches to qualify. Korea DPR need just a draw from this game but only a win against them will do for us," Saudi Arabia coach Jose Peseiro.