After a four-month winter break, Korea DPR resume their preliminary campaign for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™, when they welcome Saudi Arabia to Pyongyang on Wednesday. Having played three games apiece last year, both teams are well poised on four points, three behind Group 2 leaders Korea Republic.
While the other Asian countries were back in business with the commencement of the AFC Asian Cup qualifiers last month, the North Koreans had a relatively quiet time in January, having already failed to qualify for the continental finals after finishing third in the AFC Challenge Cup last August. However they did manage to have a couple of warm-up matches during the King's Cup in Thailand, where Korea DPR suffered back-to-back 1-0 defeats against Lebanon and a Denmark League XI.
For their part, Saudi Arabia, who has already qualified for Qatar 2011 by finishing runners-up in the 2007 edition, also had chances to tune up their squad ahead of the trip to Pyongyang. After a goalless draw with Qatar in the Gulf Cup opener earlier this month, the Saudis beat Yemen (6-0), the United Arab Emirates (3-0), and Kuwait (1-0) to reach the final, where they lost to hosts Oman after a 0-0 draw and the penalty shoot-out.
Third time lucky
Korea DPR has never beaten the Saudis in their six previous encounters, including two defeats in the preliminary competitions for Italy 1990 and USA 1994. This time, however, could be different because previous meetings were staged in neutral venues, with Wednesday's match in Pyongyang set to break that mould.
Kim Il-Sung Stadium in the centre of the North Korean capital can hold over 100,000 spectators and is infamous for its intimidating atmosphere for visitors. The Chollima will be eager to make the advantage count in their first appearance at home since securing a place in the final qualifying round in June. They were scheduled to play at home against Korea Republic in September however the venue was changed to Shanghai's Hongkou Stadium for diplomatic reasons.
A home win would put the North Koreans temporarily level on top with neighbours Korea Republic, who take on second-placed Iran in Tehran later on Wednesday. Considering that the reverse fixtures on the ultimate matchday in June are likely to decide the destiny of the group, Korea DPR will be desperate to earn a result, with a draw enough for them to remain third at the halfway point.
The visitors will have different ideas, however, as they need to get their qualifying campaign back on track following a shock home defeat at the hands of Korea Republic in November. The Saudis began preparing for the crucial encounter earlier than usual, and this week travelled to northern Japan, where they managed to beat Thailand 2-1 thanks to second half goals from Mohammad Al Shlhoub and Abdoh Autef.
It is difficult to predict whether the Saudis will have trouble acclimatising to the snow in North Korea. With both sides having suffered defeats on their previous matchday, the showdown in Pyongyang promises to be a fierce battle.