After four rounds of matches, only one team, Uzbekistan, is assured of progression to the next phase of Asian qualifying for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™. However, Matchday 5 is sure to clarify matters further, as a number of teams are only a win away from advancing to the fourth and final qualifying stage.
Group 1: Fossati's revenge?
Qatar-Australia, Doha, 14 June, 19:00 (local time)
Since going down limply to Australia on the opening matchday, Jorge Fossati's charges have recovered splendidly to draw level on points with Australia at the top of the group, although the Socceroos are ahead on goal difference. The Qataris come into this game on the back of a 1-0 away win over China, while Australia lost by the same scoreline against Iraq in Dubai on Matchday 4. Australia, by their own admission, struggled with the sultry conditions in the Gulf, and things will be no easier for them in Doha.
Australia will also be weakened by the absence of tough midfielder Vince Grella, who picked up his second caution of the qualifying series against Iraq, and key defender Lucas Neill, who is still on "paternity leave" after his partner gave birth to twins last week. Adding particular spice to the fixture is the fact that Australia were responsible for eliminating Uruguay from the previous FIFA World Cup. At that time, Uruguay's coach was...Jorge Fossati.
China PR-Iraq, Tianjin, 14 June, 20:00 (local time)
Remarkably, China are still without a win in the current round of qualifying, and a win against Iraq is absolutely imperative if they are to progress. Vladimir Petrovic's men are currently lying bottom of Group 1 with three points, one point behind their Matchday 5 opponents and four behind Qatar and Australia.
Petrovic will be hampered by absences as well, thanks to his team's ill-discipline in Doha last week: Manchester City's Sun Jihai earned himself a red card from the bench, while experienced defender Li Weifeng will be suspended after picking up a second caution of the series. Iraq's coach Adnan Hamad, by comparison, has few selection worries.
The match is a must-win for both sides, as the loser will be virtually eliminated from the reckoning.
Group 2: Bahrain nearly over the line
Bahrain-Oman, Riffa, 14 June, 19:30 (local time)
A draw will be enough for Bahrain to qualify for the fourth stage of qualifying, where they will have the chance to erase the painful memories of 2005, when they missed out on a place at Germany 2006 by the smallest of margins.
Bahrain coach Milan Macala had hoped to seal progression with a win over Group 2 tailenders Thailand on Matchday 4, but two key absences clearly affected the Gulf side, who could only draw 1-1 with their hosts. For their home game against Oman, they will be strengthened by the return of Mohammed Hussain from suspension.
Oman, under new coach Hamad Al Azani, must win if they are to have any chance of sneaking into the fourth round. They are three points behind second-placed Japan, who will be confident of picking up the points against Thailand. Much will depend on powerful midfielder Ahmed Mubarak, who scored Oman's goal in the 1-1 draw with Japan on Matchday 4 after returning from suspension.
Thailand-Japan, Bangkok, 14 June, 17:30 (local time)
Although Japan's stuttering campaign is back on track after the early loss to Bahrain, they are not yet assured of progression to the next phase. A win over Thailand at the Rajamangala Stadium, however, would be enough to soothe Japanese nerves.
Japan coach Takeshi Okada will be sweating on the fitness of midfield maestro Shunsuke Nakamura, who is still struggling with an ankle strain. Okada, however, expects his talisman to take the field against the Thais. The fitness of left-back Yuto Nagatomo is less certain, and the Japanese will be without Yoshito Okubo, who was red-carded for a foul on Oman's 'keeper Ali Al Habsi in last week's game.
The tropical heat in Bangkok will apparently not worry the well-travelled Japanese unduly. "The heat feels different to us now," commented Nakamura. "It's been hot the entire trip and in the beginning everyone was making a big deal out of it, but now everyone just kind of deals with it."
Thailand have only the remotest chance of progressing to the fourth round, and coach Chanvit Phalajivin is likely to give some of his younger players a start against Japan.