The standout section
Reigning Asian champions Japan might have their work cut out in a tough-looking Group C that pits them against fellow South Africa 2010 finalists Korea DPR and also contains Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Despite being placed in Pot 4 along with the continent’s relatively weaker sides, Korea DPR are a definite threat as they proved in reaching the last FIFA World Cup™. Japan will hope to repeat their victories over the North Koreans when they crossed swords in the third round of Germany 2006 qualifying, with Masashi Oguro scoring late goals for the Samurai Blue on both occasions. For their part, Uzbekistan will want to improve on disappointing results against Japan – a draw and a defeat – when they finished bottom of the final qualifying group for South Africa 2010.
Although Korea Republic will have to endure long-distance trips to the Middle East to face Kuwait, United Arab Emirates and Lebanon, the Taeguk Warriors look well placed to advance from Group B. Australia and Saudi Arabia, runners-up at the past two editions of the AFC Asian Cup respectively, will be expected to contest pole position in Group D, while Iran and China PR will want to push for eagerly-awaited returns to the finals from their sections.
After the west Asian teams missed out on qualifying for South Africa 2010, the qualifying competition for Brazil 2014 offers the chance to redeem themselves. Iraq, the 2007 Asian champions, and the United Arab Emirates are the forces to be reckoned with this time, while Bahrain will want to put recent near-misses behind them.
The crunch matches
Japan-Korea DPR: These north-eastern rivals will renew their acquaintance after their thrilling encounters in 2005. Japan defeated Korea DPR 2-1 thanks to an Oguro goal deep into added time at home in Saitama, before defeating the Chollima 2-0 at a neutral venue in Bangkok, Thailand. This time around, a contingent of Japanese-born North Koreans, such as An Yong-Hak and Jong Tae-Se, will add spice to the tremendous rivalry.
Australia-Saudi Arabia: There will be little margin for error when Australia and Saudi Arabia, the two Group D powers, face each other for the first time at this stage. The teams have met three times with the records evenly poised at one win, one draw and one loss for both sides.
90 – combined number of goals scored by the all-time top three scorers in FIFA World Cup qualifying, who are all from Asia – Iranian legends Ali Daei and Karim Bagheri netted 35 and 28 goals respectively, while Kazu Miura struck 27 for Japan.
The next step
The group winners and runners-up will reach the fourth round, where the ten teams will be drawn into two round-robin, home-and-away groups of five teams each. The top two from each section will qualify for the finals, while the third-placed teams will play off to decide who will face a South American team in the continental play-off.
Have your say
Will the east Asian teams continue their recent dominance in FIFA World Cup qualifying, or will the west Asians have the last laugh?