Asia's last ten teams discovered the hurdles they must overcome to reach the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ on Friday when the draw for the continent's qualifying fourth and final round took place at the AFC House, Kuala Lumpur.
Qualifying final round draw
Group 1: Australia, Japan, Bahrain, Uzbekistan, Qatar
Group 2: Korea Republic, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Korea DPR, United Arab Emirates
The final line-up saw the ten sides divided into two groups of five, with the top two finishers from each group automatically progressing to South Africa 2010. The two third-placed teams will lock horns in a playoff, with the winners facing the Oceania representatives in another two-leg play-off for a spot at the global showpiece.
The qualifying final campaign kicks off on 6 September, lasting a little over nine months until the last round on 17 June 2009.
A familiar rivalry resumes in both groups, with four pairs of opponents locking horns in re-matches, having played against each other in the previous qualifying stage. Group 1 top seeds Australia, who twice defeated Qatar in the last round, will be hoping to continue their hold over the Gulf side when they re-meet on Matchday 3 on 15 October.
Japan will open up with an away match on 6 September against Bahrain, who emerged 1-0 winners at Manama when the sides met in the third stage. While the Socceroos and the Boys in Blue are hotly tipped to dominate this group, Uzbekistan have proved they are more than capable of mounting a serious challenge, and both Bahrain and Qatar are expected to raise their game against the group's so-called big boys.
In Group 2, the two teams from the Korean peninsula will lock horns again, after progressing hand in hand from the same group into the final qualifying stage. The other "re-match" is between Iran and the UAE, while Saudi Arabia enter this competition determined to book their fifth consecutive appearance at the FIFA World Cup.
No easy games
While the draw held the attention of millions of fans across Asia, a host of footballing celebrities attended the event staged at the AFC headquarters. Those present included AFC General Secretary Paul Mony Samuel, FIFA representative Alexander Klosterkemper and Iran coach Ali Daei.
The draw threw up some intriguing pairings, which left the coaches with much to ponder over the fixtures to come. Despite being placed in different groups, the two coaches of Australia and Korea Republic independently remarked that no opponents could be underestimated.
"Every team will give us problems," remarked Australia manager Pim Verbeek, whose Korea Republic counterpart Huh Jung-Moo was quick to echo his opinions. "No game will be easy in the final phase," said Huh.
Bahrain coach Milan Macala, who has spent the past decade coaching a number of Asian teams, drew the conclusion through his immense experiences. "Every team has an equal chance," said the 64-year-old. "All of the qualified teams are competitive and strong. Anyone can win any match."
Match schedule (TBC):
(The ten teams, divided into two groups of five, will play home-and-away. Home teams given first:)
Matchday 1: 6 September 2008 - 3 v 2, 5 v 4 (1 bye)
MD 2: 10 September 2008 - 4 v 1; 5 v 3 (2 bye)
MD 3: 15 October 2008 - 1 v 5; 2 v 4 (3 bye)
MD 4: 19 November 2008 - 5 v 2; 3 v 1 (4 bye)
MD 5: 11 February 2009 - 4 v 3; 2 v 1 (5 bye)
MD 6: 28 March 2009 - 2 v 3, 4 v 5 (1 bye)
MD 7: 1 April 2009 - 1 v 4; 3 v 5 (2 bye)
MD 8: 6 June 2009 - 5 v 1; 4 v 2 (3 bye)
MD 9: 10 June 2009 - 2 v 5; 1 v 3 (4 bye)
MD 10: 17 June 2009 - 3 v 4; 1 v 2 (5 bye)