The stakes get higher as matchday 2 of Asia's second round of qualifying for Russia 2018 begins on Tuesday. Not surprisingly, the competition looks set to draw greater attention from across the continent and even beyond as a host of top teams begin their campaigns. Indeed, this is the moment when Brazil 2014 campaigners Australia, Japan, Iran and Korea Republic all enter the fray.
*The match *
*Korea DPR-Uzbekistan, Kim Il-sung Stadium, Pyongyang *
Although some of Asia’s highest-ranked teams are in action, the meeting of these two is mouthwatering given how evenly matched they are. The two were also drawn together in the same section in January’s AFC Asian Cup, with Uzbekistan prevailing 1-0 in Sydney. Indeed, the Central Asians are undefeated against the North Koreans having won four and drawn two of their six meetings.
Hosts Korea DPR are, however, a side that no-one can underestimate. The 1966 FIFA World Cup quarter-finalists have proved a hard nut to crack on the Asian scene and the *Chollima *can take heart from their successful qualification for South Africa 2010 when they remained unbeaten in their seven home matches.
The other attractions *
In *Group A, many eyes will be on 2015 AFC Asian Cup semi-finalists United Arab Emirates who open up against Timor-Leste. Despite losing to Korea Republic 3-0 in a pre-match warm-up, Mahdi Ali's star-studded side should have few problems against the south-east Asians who held Malaysia to a 1-1 draw on matchday 1. In another match, both Malaysia and Palestine enter their first-ever meeting seeking to bounce back having dropped points in their previous matches.
Despite getting off to a winning start a week ago, Group B leaders Kyrgyzstan face a tough test against reigning Asian champions Australia. Aware that there is little room for error in the qualifying campaign, the Socceroos coach Ange Postecoglou has named his strongest squad possible with only AFC Asian Cup hero Massimo Luongo and Trent Sainsbury missing due to injuries. The other match pits Tajikistan against hosts Bangladesh, both of whom are desperate to get their campaign back on track.
2015 AFC Asian Cup quarter-finalists China of Group C enter the unknown when they travel to Bhutan. But having seen the rivals thrashed by Hong Kong 7-0, coach Alain Perrin's aim is not only clinch three points but also to score as many goals as possible. Hong Kong, meanwhile, entertain the Maldives hoping to replicate the success when the two sides last met back in 2005 when they ran out 6-1 winners in a friendly.
In Group D, the majority of the attention is focused on Asia's top-ranked side Iran who open their campaign away in Turkmenistan. Carlos Queiroz's side may be the undisputed favourites, but the unfancied hosts, curiously, hold an undefeated record with two wins and two draws in the meetings between the two. The other match sees Guam, boosted by their home victory against Turkmenistan, entertain India, hoping to pull off another surprise against the world's second most populous country.
Japan welcome Singapore in Group E who opened with a 4-0 victory in Cambodia. The hosts holds a dominant record with 18 wins out of 22 previous meetings but new boss Vahid Halilhodzic is likely to field their strongest line-up as they aim to secure all three points. Despite losing to UAE in the 2015 AFC Asian Cup quarter-final clash, Japan have been on a good run of form, notably defeating Iraq 4-0 in a recent friendly.
*Group F's *Thailand travel to Chinese Taipei aiming to strengthen their standing at the top of the section with a second win, having downed Vietnam SR 1-0 in the opening match. Elsewhere, Group G top seeds Korea Republic arrive in Bangkok to face Myanmar on the back of a 3-0 friendly win against UAE, while Lebanon head to Laos desperate to revive their fortunes with a first win.
*Player to watch *
Sardar Azmoun is expected to shoulder the goalscoring tasks as Iran seek their maiden victory against Turkmenistan. The 20-year-old prodigy proved one of Iran's biggest revelations in the 2015 AFC Asian Cup campaign, where he scored twice as Iran reached the last eight. With lightning speed and a good eye for goal, the Rostov forward can provide Team Melli with options to break the deadlock.
*Did you know? *
While familiar foes meet again in the matchday 2, there are strangers crossing swords with as many as eight pairs of sides battling in their first-ever meeting.
*What they said *
"We don't have a lot of information on the opposition because they haven't played many games. But we have done a lot of work in the preparation to make sure that once we get there, we will be comfortable," Ange Postecoglou, Australia coach
Matchday 2 fixtures *
Group A:* Timor-Leste-United Arab Emirates, Malaysia-Palestine
Group B: Bangladesh-Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan-Australia
Group C: Bhutan-China, Hong Kong-Maldives
Group D: Guam-India, Turkmenistan-Iran
Group E: *Japan-Singapore, Cambodia-Afghanistan
*Group F: *Chinese Taipei-Thailand
**Group G: Myanmar-Korea Republic, Laos-Lebanon
Group H: Korea DPR-Uzbekistan, Yemen-Philippines