Asian minnows rarely take centre stage. However, the continent's second qualifying round for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™ provides them with a seldom chance to rub shoulders with the big boys. Fifteen underdogs, including the eight successful sides from the opening round, will challenge higher-ranked rivals over two legs, the first of which will unfold tomorrow, for the right to join Australia, Bahrain, Japan, Korea DPR and Korea Republic in the next phase.
Such meetings invariably used to end in one-sided results, with upsets scarce. With the gap between teams in Asia having narrowed significantly in recent years, though, the favourites can take nothing for granted. FIFA.com previews the ensuing action.
Click on this 'Classic Qualifiers' link to read about some of the most thrilling FIFA World Cup preliminaries in history.
The big game *United Arab Emirates-India
This is without doubt the pick of the contests, given that it is the only one featuring two sides which competed in January's AFC Asian Cup. Both ultimately exited at the group stage, though India can take heart from returning to the competition for the first time since 1984 and United Arab Emirates can draw encouragement from being unlucky to be held to a goalless draw by South Africa 2010 participants, Korea DPR.
The pair have both made fast progress thereafter. Under new coach Armando Colaco, India recently stunned Qatar 2-1, while Srecko Katanec's side thrashed Lebanon 6-2 in a friendly. The South Asians can look to the prolific form of Sunil Chhetri, who was twice on target during the continental finals. For their part, the UAE, with the talismanic Ismail Matar likely to miss out through injury, will entrust striking prodigy Ahmed Khalil, who netted a hat-trick against the Lebanese, with inspiring a home triumph.
Despite the first leg taking place in Al Ain, Colaco wants nothing less than victory. He said: "My players are eager to play the UAE, and we will play to win." Katanec, meanwhile, has fixed his sights on no fewer than an emphatic success: "The India match is a test for us. But the players are confident of building up a big cushion to take to Dehli.
United Arab Emirates have met twice in the FIFA World Cup preliminaries, on the road to Korea/Japan 2002, when they recorded a 1-0 win apiece.
The best of the restThe aforementioned game is one of eight involving teams who have encountered one another before in FIFA World Cup qualifying. Among them is Iran-Maldives, whose last meeting, in the run-up to France 1998, ended in an astounding 26-0 aggregate victory for Team Melli – a then record in the preliminaries.
This time around, a far tighter contest is expetced. Maldives highlighted their progress with by holding Korea Republic to a goalless draw in qualifying for Germany 2006, before reducing Yemen to a narrow 3-2 aggregate win in their attempt to reach South Africa 2010. That said, Iran, under Carlos Queiroz and captained by Ali Karimi, are still very much the team to beat.
Like Maldives, Vietnam have a score to settle, having been humiliated 4-0 both home and away by Qatar in their debut qualifying appearance in 1994. Their hopes lie on the form of forward Le Cong Vinh, who smashed home seven goals against Macau over two legs. Qatar, spearheaded by their Asian Cup hero Yusef Ahmed, must overcome inconsistency if they are to live up to their billing as the firm favourites.
Inspired by their elimination of Chinese Taipei, Malaysia expect to upstage neighbouring Singapore and seal their first-ever qualification for the third round. With goal-getter Mohd Safee Mohd Sali back to fitness, coach Rajagobal Krishnasamy can field the formidable side which conquered all at last December’s AFF Championship. Radojko Avramovic’s charges do boast the better qualifying record, however, having reached the third stage in their previous attempt for South Africa 2010.
Recent success is not something Thailand can count on when they entertain Palestine in Bangkok. Having failed to progress beyond the group stage in the recent AFF Championship, despite being three-time winners of the tournament, the Land of Smiles, under newly-appointed Winfried Schafer, are desperate to redeem themselves against the West Asians.
Despite progressing with a 5-1 aggregate victory over Sri Lanka, Philippines face an uphill challenge against a Kuwait outfit 57 places above them on the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking. The Azkals' German coach Michael Weiss told FIFA.com: "We are underdogs in many aspects, but the team are on their top form and we will strive to defy the odds."
Elsewhere, China PR are expected to make light work of Laos, while the same can be said of four-time FIFA World Cup qualifiers Saudi Arabia, who take on Hong Kong. Uzbekistan are hoping to continue their regional authority over Kyrgyzstan, and an easy tie against Yemen should beckon for Iraq, who ran out 9-1 aggregate winners in the sides’ last meeting ahead of USA 1994.
Player to watch
Having established himself as one of south-east Asia's best forwards in recent years, can Le Cong Vinh prove himself on the entire continental stage by steering Vietnam past Qatar?
What they said
"To be honest I was not happy when I learned that we have to face Iran. However, we are not daunted by the task and our target is to play as best as we can and achieve satisfying results," Andres Cruciani, Maldives coach.
Second round, first legs
Saudi Arabia-Hong Kong
United Arab Emirates-India
The second legs will be played on Thursday 28 July.
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