Asian qualification for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ has reached a pivotal stage with four of the continent's biggest nations locking horns on 11 February.
Australia travel to Japan for what has long been earmarked as a decisive match-up, while on the other side of the continent Iran will host Korea Republic. Although only at the halfway point of the final stage of qualifying, the next round of matches are likely to go a long way towards deciding which Asian nations will be appearing in South Africa next year.
The quartet is currently Asia's top four on the FIFA/Coca Cola World Ranking, all of whom also qualified for the 2006 FIFA World Cup Germany. They now approach the midway section of competition vying for pole position in their respective sections. There are also lengthy historical ties linking the two pairings, with Japan's home match against Australia marking their 16th meeting, while Iran have tackled nemesis Korea Republic on 21 previous occasions.
Japan aim to go one better
Despite the geographical distance between the two nations, Japan and Australia have developed a traditional rivalry which began far earlier than many might imagine.
Their first encounter dates back to 1956 when hosts Australia claimed a 2-0 win in that year's Melbourne Olympiad. The Aussies went on to hold the upper hand during the early exchanges, notably prevailing over Japan in the qualifying campaign for Mexico 1970. In more recent times under Frenchman Philippe Troussier, the East Asians registered a 1-0 win over Socceroos at the 2001 FIFA Confederations Cup before pulling off a 3-0 triumph in the AFC-OFC Challenge Cup only two months later.
The pressure is more on Japan as they have to win at home. While we want to win, we don't have to win.
The rivalry recommenced in earnest in the unlikely setting of Kaiserslautern in a famous FIFA World Cup match at Germany 2006. Australia came from a goal down to score three times late on and seal a famous win, their first at a FIFA World Cup. However Japan were to exact revenge a year later, defeating a star-studded but under-performed Australia via a penalty shootout in the AFC Asian Cup quarter-finals.
They go into the sixteenth meeting level on all counts, each coming up with five wins and five draws. A win in this match for either side will be a massive fillip to their respective campaigns and a tight low-scoring contest can be expected.
"Australia may be strong, but our goal is three points," Japan coach Takeshi Okada firmly exclaimed. His opposite number Pim Verbeek was more philosophical. "The pressure is more on Japan as they have to win at home," the Dutchman remarked. "While we want to win, we don't have to win."
Iran count on home support
Two of the continent's all-time heavyweights, Iran and Korea Republic, have magnetically been drawn together on numerous occasions when it comes to either continental finals or FIFA World Cup qualifiers. They have shared a history of 21 meetings to date, with each side claiming eight wins and five draws to enter their next fixture on level terms.
Despite the historical alignment, Iran have proved one of the Korea Republic's most intimidating opponents in Asia, with a habit of achieving important results at the expense of the Taeguk Warriors. The history of Korean conquest by the Iranians commenced as far back as 1972 with a win in the AFC Asian Cup final to claim their second continental title. Six years later they booked Asia's only place at Argentina 1978, once again at the expense of the Korea Republic.
The cavernous environs of Tehran's Azadi Stadium will provide an electric backdrop for the crucial match-up though the visitors have the advantage of a two-point break on their opponents at the top of the standings.
Now managed by legendary striker Ali Daei, a relatively youthful though talented Iranian squad has recently been complemented by the return of free-scoring veteran midfielder Karim Bagheri. The side appears to be in a rich vein of form in front of goal, crushing Singapore 6-0 just last week in a 2011 AFC Asian Cup qualifier. "The players are getting better and better in terms of tactics and organisation," Daei said. "They are young but they will do good things."