After a three-month break, qualifying for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ resumes in Asia on 11 February with four crucial matches, that could ultimately prove pivotal.
Group A is headlined by a heavyweight encounter as Japan host Australia in a repeat of their memorable showdown at the 2006 FIFA World Cup. On the other side of the continent, Uzbekistan welcome Bahrain in a must-win match for both sides. The standings in the other qualifying group are also delicately poised with Iran hosting Korea Republic in a battle for top-spot, while Korea DPR face Saudi Arabia in an equally critical pairing.
Australia and Iran were surprisingly held to draws on Wednesday in their respective AFC Asian Cup qualifiers, but the biggest shock of the night was in Manama, where Bahrain defeated Japan. Like the oft-underrated Bahrainis, Uzbekistan also garnered some invaluable confidence after knocking over the United Arab Emirates on their home turf.
Though Japan were without the services of their European-based stars, and talismanic midfielder Yasuhito Endo in Bahrain, coach Takeshi Okada was feeling the heat as a relatively experienced side faltered in Manama. "It always feels shocking when you lose," said Okada after the match. "I believe we have learned various lessons ahead of the Australia game."
The conditions will be far different in Yokohama for the visit of the Australians in what promises to be an epic match-up, described by Okada as a "must-win". Japan remain two points behind Australia, but they have a three-point cushion over Qatar, who have played an additional match.
Australia's second-string side battled to a draw against Indonesia on Wednesday, however only defensive stalwart Craig Moore is likely to remain in the line-up for the Japan encounter. Coach Pim Verbeek is set to be without the injured Harry Kewell, but he will be buoyed by the goalscoring form of Everton's Tim Cahill and Celtic's Scott McDonald.
In the other match, Uzbekistan host Bahrain in a crucial encounter that will almost certainly see the loser eliminated. With just one point to show after three matches, it is somewhat of a surprise that the pair scored impressive wins on Wednesday. Bahrain's victory over Japan was well-deserved and reaffirmed just how difficult they are to break down at home.
Uzbekistan are also in winning form, with their 1-0 triumph in Sharjah suggesting that the many weeks spent in camp over the last month has paid off for coach Mirdjalal Kasimov.
The headline match in Group B pits hosts Iran against Korea Republic in the fortress that is the Azadi Stadium. The group standings has the Koreans two points clear of Iran, with Korea DPR and Saudi Arabia a further point back.
Iran's recent results suggest home form is everything. After demolishing Singapore 6-0 in Tehran, Ali Daei's men could only muster a scoreless draw in Bangkok against Thailand as their AFC Asian Cup campaign got underway. "We can't win all our games," said Daei. "We can't win everything, sometimes this happens in football."
Having qualified automatically for Qatar 2011, the South Koreans have spent much of January in intensive training at home, playing five matches against local teams. The Taeguk Warriors have struggled historically in Tehran and coach Huh Jung-Moo is sure to be content to take home a point and maintain his side's position at the head of the standings.
Pyongyang is the venue for two teams that will be hoping that Iran slip-up, as Korea DPR host Saudi Arabia. A loss for either team, combined with an Iranian victory, will likely result in a third-place play-off against a Group A counterpart as the only remaining goal.
The North Koreans' limited recent international form is moderate, losing 1-0 at home to Lebanon just last week and suffering a 2-1 loss to Iran in their last FIFA World Cup qualifier in October.
Saudi Arabia is another nation that has automatically qualified for Qatar, but they are nevertheless well-prepared, having been busy on the international stage this month competing in the eight-nation Gulf Cup in Oman. The Saudis fell only at the final hurdle, losing a shootout in the final against the host nation.