Japan may have qualified for every FIFA World Cup™ finals since their historic debut at France 1998, but the road to Brazil seems to be as difficult as their rollercoaster campaign some 14 years previously. On paper, the reigning Asian champions are clear favourites to breeze past Korea DPR, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. However, the Samurai Blue will underestimate their Group C opponents at their peril, as the trio has what it takes to cause a stir or two in this, arguably the toughest group of the third round.

Korea DPR are another team in this section to have participated at South Africa 2010, where they failed to emulate their ground-breaking success at England 1966. If the North Koreans are suddenly re-emerging after a long absence, the Uzbeks are making a slow and steady progress to establish themselves as a force to be reckoned with in the continent. The central Asians are on the back of an impressive performance that earned them fourth place at the AFC Asian Cup, while the Tajiks were awarded an unexpected progression at the expense of rivals Syria, who were ruled out for fielding an ineligible player.

The favourites
For all the possibilities of surprises and upsets, the Japanese will hold the psychological edge over their rivals. Japan defeated Korea DPR twice in the final group to reach the finals of Germany 2006, before overcoming Uzbekistan on the road to South Africa four years later. Notably, the Japanese have never lost in their seven respective meetings with the Uzbeks.

The outsiders
Korea DPR: The North Koreans still seem to be reeling from their disappointing campaigns at South Africa 2010 and the AFC Asian Cup the following year, but this adventure should be a good opportunity for the Chollima to regroup and redeem themselves.

Uzbekistan: The central Asians are more than capable of competing with Asia’s best sides, as they proved during the recent Asian Cup with their fluid and attacking football spearheaded by captain Server Djeparov and striker Alexander Geynrikh.

Players to watch
Makoto Hasebe, Shinji Kagawa (JPN), Server Djeparov (UZB), Kamil Saidov (TJK), Jong Tae-Se (PRK)

The crunch match
Japan-Korea DPR
All eyes will be focused on this mouth-watering clash between the South Africa 2010 finalists, with national pride and a ticket to the next round at stake. The sides have met each other eight times in Asian Zone qualifying - the Japanese have won five times and lost twice, while drawing once.

A look back
Korea DPR 0-0 Japan, 30 April 1985, Pyongyang
Despite making their FIFA World Cup qualifying debut in 1965, the North Koreans had to wait for almost two decades until they staged their first preliminary match at home, which ended in a goalless draw with the Japanese.

The stat
1 – Japan were the first team to qualify for the finals from the past two Asian Zone preliminary competitions, with the last one secured by a 1-0 victory over Uzbekistan in Tashkent on 6 June 2009.

Did you know?
Japan’s legendary striker Kazu Miura is the only player to have scored more than ten goals in two different FIFA World Cup qualifying campaigns, netting 13 in 1994 and 14 in 1998.

Have your say
Will both Japan and Korea DPR, who qualified for the finals of South Africa 2010, be able to overcome the first hurdle to reach the next round together?