Asia's third round of qualifying for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ reaches its first critical point on Saturday, as a trio of the leading teams seek to progress to the final stage of AFC qualification with two games to spare.
Uzbekistan and Bahrain, the only two teams to have won all three games so far, can book early passage with home wins over Singapore and Thailand, while Australia must not only gain full points against Iraq, but also hope that Qatar can overcome China, if they are to ensure a place in Round 4 of AFC qualifying.
After securing a point against second-placed Qatar in Doha in the last game, Group 1 strugglers China will be desperate for their first win when they host the same opponents in Tianjin. In Group 2, Oman will go all out against Japan to reverse their previous 3-0 humiliation at the hands of the three-time Asian champions; otherwise, their hopes of progressing from the group will rapidly evaporate.
Group 1: Socceroos count on aerial edge
Iraq-Australia, Dubai, 7 June, 20:00 (local time)
Having scraped through against Iraq in Brisbane with a scrappy 1-0 win, Australia coach Pim Verbeek travelled with his charges to Dubai for the return match with a revised game plan up his sleeve, knowing that a win will send them through if Qatar can beat China in the other game.
Despite carving out more chances than Australia, Iraq left holes at the back in Brisbane, and their defence appeared particularly vulnerable in the air. This Achilles' heel cost them dear when Harry Kewell popped up to head home the only goal of the game two minutes into the second half.
With Kewell and Scott McDonald both available to cause Iraq headaches with their strength in the air, Verbeek's "shock and awe" strategy has recevied a further boost with the return of their big forward Josh Kennedy, who is expected to spearhead an aerial onslaught in the closing stages against the Iraqis.
China PR-Qatar, Tianjin, 7 June, 20:00 (local time)
China's Serbian coaching duo of Vladimir Petrovic and Ratomir Dujkovic are in no mood to do Verbeek any favours, however. They have vowed to overcome Qatar at home through relentless attack. "We must look to our midfield to create more chances," remarked Dujkovic, who is lending his experience to the senior side as the "general coach" alongside his duties with the country's Olympic team.
Chinese fans will remember Qatar's prowess on the counter only too well; the men from the Gulf snatched a surprise 3-2 win against hosts China in the AFC qualifying series for France 1998. "We will need to keep it very tight in defence, and their striker Sebastian Quintana will have to be particularly closely marked."
Group 2: Macala wary of complacency
Bahrain-Thailand, Manama, 7 June, 19:30 (local time)
For coach Milan Macala, whose Bahrain side is on the verge of booking progression after securing three wins from three games, the competition is still far from over. After spending the past decade and half coaching a number of Asian teams, the Czech tactician knows all too well how unpredictable the regional rivals can be.
"Thailand come here with little chance to qualify, so they will play without any pressure, and teams can be dangerous like that," remarked Macala. Thailand, empty-handed after three games, will need not one but a series of miracles if they are to qualify.
Oman-Japan, Muscat, 7 June, 17:15 (local time)
An away win against Oman in Muscat will further strengthen Japan's position in the section and send Oman to the brink of elimination, but a win for the hosts will leave Takeshi Okada's side locked level with Oman on six points, a result which would make the remaining campaign a true nail-biter.
"We are far from comfortably through yet, and playing away against Oman won't be easy," warned Okada. He will be aware that Oman will return to full strength on Saturday, with a trio of their key players back from suspension.
However, Okada and his men can draw inspiration from in-form Celtic playmaker Shunsuke Nakamura, who had a hand in two goals in their 3-0 victory over Oman last Saturday. The mercurial midfielder also scored a spectacular goal against Oman in an AFC Asian Cup game in 2004.
Oman will be playing their first game under new coach Hamad Al Azani, who replaced Uruguayan Julio Cesar Ribas yesterday.