Fourteen months on from the FIFA World Cup™, Asia's four participants at South Africa 2010 - Japan, Australia, Korea Republic and Korea DPR – are once again setting out on the road to football’s global showpiece in their continent's third round of Brazil 2014 qualifiers.
Having received a bye to this stage, the heavyweight quartet will be keen to prove their credentials with victories, while the likes of China PR, Iraq, United Arab Emirates and Kuwait - each boasting a FIFA World Cup appearance apiece – will also be eyeing a bright start. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia, now under the guidance of Frank Rijkaard, are hoping to brush aside their qualifying failure four years ago against Oman, and the same can be said of Iran, who have set their sights firmly on taking maximum points against visiting Indonesia. Join FIFA.com as we preview the enticing match-ups set to be served up.
The only fixture that features two South Africa 2010 participants, this meeting in Saitama is sure to dominate attention. Under Alberto Zaccheroni, Japan have developed an air of invincibility over the past year, conquering all in January's AFC Asian Cup for their fourth continental title, before running out 3-0 victors over Korea Republic in a recent friendly.
The North Koreans, for their part, travel to Japan in less convincing form, having lost 2-0 to China and drawn 0-0 with Kuwait in recent friendlies. With a defensive approach the most likely tactic from the visitors, their VfL Bochum striker Jong Tae-Se is expected to shoulder the goalscoring burden, and Japan will be wary of a player who scored ten goals in his debut season in Germany.
Boasting an unbeaten record from seven meetings over the past two decades, the Blue Samurai go into the match with a clear psychological advantage. However, with injured talisman Keisuke Honda and Kengo Nakamura both missing, Zaccheroni’s side will need to hit top form if they are to avoid a difficult evening against their never-say-die opponents.
The other attractions
The opening matchday is marked by derbies, with no fewer than 12 regional rivals pitted against each other. Topping the list is an all-west Asian affair between Iraq and Jordan in what will be the sides’ seventh FIFA World Cup qualifying encounter. Boosted by the appointment of Zico as coach, the Iraqis can also take heart from their historic record, having won five and drawn one of the teams’ previous meetings. However, it is the Jordanians who have form on their side, and they will point out that they have won the sides’ two most recent meetings. Coached by none other than former Iraq boss Adnan Hamad, Jordan be hoping that his inside knowledge will prove crucial.
Elsewhere, in a match featuring two of Asia’s qualifying underachievers, Bahrain entertain Qatar seeking to continue their dominance in the fixture, having emerged unbeaten from the teams’ six meeting since 2004. The hosts have also been boosted by a recent 1-0 friendly victory over Sudan, while their visitors, who rounded off preparations with a disappointing 3-1 loss to UAE, are left desperate to redeem themselves under new Brazilian coach Sebastiao Lazaroni. The section’s other fixture pits Indonesia against Iran, who are expected to live up to their billing as favourites under Portuguese Carlos Queiroz.
Also keen to prove themselves are Korea Republic, whose recent friendly loss to Japan left coach Cho Kwang-Rae and his charges under pressure. Determined to bounce back with a home triumph against Lebanon, Cho has named a strong squad that features six Europe-based stars. In the group’s another game, UAE welcome Kuwait hoping to continue a four-match unbeaten run.
Oman are protecting an even longer unbeaten streak, one stretching back ten matches, and they will be hopeful of causing a major upset against Saudi Arabia on home soil. Inspired by a recent 1-0 friendly victory against Kuwait, the hosts will hope to prove similarly tough to beat against the Sons of Deserts, who put eight unanswered goals past Hong Kong in the previous qualifying round. Thailand, meanwhile, may need a miracle if they are to win away to the powerful Australians.
Elsewhere, Spaniard Jose Antonio Camacho is hoping to get his Chinese tenure off to a winning start against Singapore, while Tajikistan, who received an unexpected slot in Asia’s last 20, replacing Syria, have nothing to lose against Uzbekistan and are aiming to make history by beating their neighbours for the first time.
Player to watch
Shinji Kagawa struck twice as Japan cruised past Korea Republic recently. The Dortmund midfielder's goalscoring form will once again be key if Zaccheroni's charges are to secure an opening win.
16 of the 20 participating teams are coached by foreign coaches, leaving Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Korea DPR and Korea Republic as the only four still employing homegrown managers.
What they said
“I am hoping that our players can play with composure and courage, which I have been asking them to show since my arrival. We might have extra pressure but I hope we can transform that into pleasure to get through the competition,” Alberto Zaccheroni, Japan coach.
Asia's third qualifying round, matchday 1 fixtures
Group A: China PR-Singapore, Iraq-Jordan
Group B: Korea Republic-Lebanon, United Arab Emirates-Kuwait
Group C: Japan-Korea DPR, Tajikistan-Uzbekistan
Group D: Australia-Thailand, Oman-Saudi Arabia
Group E: Iran-Indonesia, Bahrain-Qatar