Asia's ten candidates for the four automatic places on offer at the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ began their long journey in September, and they are just short of halfway there. After four matchdays, clear leaders have emerged in each of the two groups, and although the favourites appear to be calling the shots at this point, there have been plenty of signs that this qualification process will be bitterly-fought right up until the final matchday in June next year. FIFA.com takes a look back at the memorable moments of Asia's final qualifying round so far, starting with:
The big surprise
Uzbekistan were expected to be a formidable prospect in Group A, after storming through their third-round group in prolific fashion, conceding their only loss after they had already secured progression to the next phase. Qatar, who had narrowly gotten the better of Iraq to sneak into the final phase, were not expected to give them too much trouble in their group opener in Doha on 6 September. Instead, the Gulf side, under Uruguayan coach Jorge Fossati, stunned the Uzbeks 3-0 in a completely convincing display, to get the Central Asians' fourth round campaign off to the worst possible start. A home defeat in their next game, against Australia, set the Uzbeks further behind, and precipitated the departure of coach Rauf Inileyev. The would-be favourites are now clinging on for dear life in Group A.
Many of Asia's elders have proved beyond doubt that there is life after 30, even in the hard slog of international football. Iran have been particularly well-served by their wise old heads: Mehdi Mahdavikia, a veteran of France 1998, came back into the international fold on 15 October and immediately set Ali Daei's team on the way to victory over Korea DPR. Yet it got even better for the Iranians: the legendary Karim Bagheri, Iran's midfield mastermind since 1993, was recalled to the colours by his old team-mate Daei and produced a trademark performance, including an equalizing goal, to rescue a point for Iran against UAE in Dubai on 19 November.
Another side that has been well-served by old soldiers is Australia. Former Rangers defender Craig Moore, who had retired from the national team early in the previous qualifying round, returned to bolster an undermanned Australian defence to excellent effect against Qatar. His was not the only welcome return for coach Pim Verbeek, who had restored journeyman left-back Scott Chipperfield to the team for Australia's first game against Uzbekistan; the FC Basel man duly scored the winning goal.
The tight finishes
There has been plenty of late drama in the final Asian qualifying stage. It started on the first matchday, when Japan looked to be cruising against their third stage rivals Bahrain, leading 3-0 with three minutes to play. But suddenly came a goal from Salman Isa, followed by an own goal by Marcus Tulio Tanaka a minute later, and it was game on. Japan held on for the three points, but it was nail-biting business. Yet Bahrain found themselves the victim of a late goal in their home game against Australia on the fourth matchday, when Mark Bresciano scored for the visitors in the third minute of injury time. It was cruel on the men from the Gulf, who had looked the better side up to that point.
Nor has it been any less dramatic in Group B. In November's summit clash between Saudi Arabia and Korea Republic in Riyadh, the Koreans broke the deadlock fourteen minutes from the close, and faced a barrage of Saudi pressure for the remainder of the game. Nasser Al Johar's men looked set to pull the game back level, with the Saudis squandering two excellent chances in the final minutes of normal time. But two minutes into added time, Park Chu-Young's goal finally allowed Huh Jung-Moo's team to breathe easy.
The drama continues in 2009, with six matchdays left, all teams still in with a chance of qualification, and a myriad of stories still to be told...