Three months have elapsed since the last fixtures of Asia's final qualifying round for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™. With the campaign recommencing on Tuesday, Matchday 4 throws up a series of enticing match-ups between the last ten sides.
Notably, high-flying Korea Republic are expecting to cement their dominant place in Group A with a third successive victory in Uzbekistan. And this can be said of Group B front-runners Japan, who have fixed their sights on no fewer than three points against Iraq at home. It is different stories, though, for Lebanon and Jordan, with the two bottom sides left with few options but to defeat Iran and Australia if they are to keep their hopes alive.
Iraq coach Zico travels to Tokyo with more targets than one, having guided Japan to AFC Asian Cup glory in 2004 and at Germany 2006. Crucially, trailing behind Japan by five points, his charges face a must-win game if they are to maintain their place in the section's top two.
The two sides are level on historic record, with two wins and two draws for each. However, the Iraqis can take heart from their last qualifying meeting for USA 1994, during which Jaffar Omran Salman equalised with a stoppage-time strike in a 2-2 draw to deny the Japanese their first-ever FIFA World Cup qualification.
The hosts, understandably, enter the re-match desperate to erase the memory with a win. Though, their recent friendly form suggested differently. They managed a 1-1 draw with Peru before edging United Arab Emirates 1-0 in the build-up, with the less-impressive performance causing coach Alberto Zaccheroni concern. The visitors, for their part, arrive in Japan under-prepared having played no friendlies. Missing a series of key players including defender Basem Abbas and player-maker Mahdi Karim, Zico's must-depleted side are expected to have an uphill game.
The other attractions
Any slips-up by Iraq will, of course, benefit Australia, who can climb to second with a victory in Jordan. The two sides have never met before but Holger Osieck's Socceroos can count on their star-studded line-up mainly featuring overseas-based players. Adnan Hamad's hosts, meanwhile, can look to their home form which has seen them undefeated in five matches so far at Amman. Furthermore, the Jordanian's hopes are boosted by the return of the influential midfielder Hassan Mahmoud from injury. The visitors enter the strangers' encounter with a 3-0 warm-up defeat of Lebanon, while the hosts won 2-0 against Uzbekistan before drawing Iran to a goalless draw in the run-up.
While Jordan and Australia cross swords in a strangers' derby, it is old foes that meet again in Tashkent as Uzbekistan entertain leaders Korea Republic in their tenth in general and fifth FIFA World Cup qualifying meeting. And the hosts are clear they have a score to settle going into the re-match, having never won against the Koreans since a fortuitous 1-0 victory in the 1994 Asian Games. A solitary-goal defeat of Jordan was followed by a 3-0 victory against Kuwait in the tune-up as Mirdjalal Kasimov's home side enter the encounter with winning form. Coach Choi Kang-Hee 's Taeguk Warriors, though, are reinforced with the return of Wanderers midfielder Lee Chung-Yong and Arsenal forward Park Chu-Young.
Languishing at Group A bottom with merely a point from their three opening fixtures, Lebanon are aiming to bounce back with their first win against Iran at home. However, they showed they are far from ready to spring a surprise against Team Melli by conceding three unanswered goals against Australia. The hosts' hopes, therefore, lay on the shoulders of newly-returned captain Roda Antar and striker Mahmoud El Ali, both of whom were instrumental as they progressed into the final round for the first time. The Iranians, boasting six wins and a draw from their previous meetings, are expected to continue their dominant record with three points.
Player to watch
Antar played an influential role as Lebanon stunned Korea Republic 2-1 in the previous round. Having missed his side's opening three matches due to injury, the Shandong Luneng midfielder is expectant of repeating such a feat upon his return.
What they said
"For me it is very nice to be back in Japan and very emotional because I worked here 15 years. There are new players (in Iraq) and I want to see if they are up to the job. I am confident of getting a result," Iraq coach Zico