Asia's qualifying for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™ reached the decisive fourth stage in 2012, with five rounds of games played across six months during the past year. With four automatic qualifying spots up for grab, the competition proved fierce as surprises unfolded and upsets abounded across the concluding phase.
Japan stood out as the only team to maintain undefeated thus far, winning four and drawing one to leave them eight points clear of the second-placed Australia in Group B. Contrasting to the form of the Blue Samurai, both the Socceroos and Korea Republic showed a lack of consistency, while Iran's profligacy in front of the goal has cost them dearly.
It’s likely most would agree that the rematch of the 2011 AFC Asian Cup final represented some of the premier class of the continent. Resuming their fast-grown rivalry on Matchday 3, Asian champions Japan and continental runners-up Australia produced a 1-1 draw which saw two red cards and a penalty amidst much drama. Arriving in Brisbane with two victories already under their belt, Alberto Zaccheroni's charges were keen to record a third win and strengthen their grip on top spot. The visitors did their utmost to grab all three points, showcasing their trademark passing and attacking flair, with Yuzo Kurihara tapping in Keisuke Honda's cross to break the deadlock on 65 minutes.
Coach Holger Osieck's hosts, meanwhile, emerged a different team from the squad that had played out a goalless draw against Oman in their opener, carving out better chances than the Japanese in a much improved display. Even with one man short and a goal down, they maintained the pressure on the opponents, equalising just five minutes after going behind courtesy of Luke Wilkshire's spot-kick. The precious point provided the Australians with a timely morale-booster as the Japanese had to be content to return home unscathed with a share of the spoils.
Iran captain Nekonam scored the only goal of their encounter against Korea Republic with a spectacular half-volley as their ten-man registered a spirited home victory. The visitors proved the better side in a goalless first half, twice rattling the woodwork with the hosts lucky to keep the scoresheet untouched. The Iranians' hopes were dealt a severe blow with Masoud Soleimani Shojaei's dismissal after 56 minutes. With so much at stake, Nekonam eased a nation's worries by taking hold of a clearance to grab the match-winning goal.
13 - Japan have proved to be the campaign's top-scorers so far, managing 13 goals across five outings and scored by seven different players, with Ryoichi Maeda’s tally of five the biggest individual haul.
"What people suggest, I don't actually care. I’m not listening to any of the critics because I work closely with the team and I know what the players can do. It is my assessment and I know who is ready and who still needs to put in a lot more effort," Australia coach Holger Osieck
Group B is likely to be a three-way battle for the second place behind runaway leaders Japan, who are within touching distance of qualification with just three matches left. Australia, albeit level with Iraq and Oman on five points, have a game in hand and can count on home support in three of the four remaining games - even bottom side Jordan can't be ruled out. The debutants can at least secure third place and a spot in the Asian playoff, should they relive the form which saw them dispatch Australia 2-1.
The same can be said of Group A's Lebanon, who stunned Iran 1-0 at home in their maiden final qualifying round campaign. However, it is Uzbekistan who are most likely to book their first-ever qualification, having swept past Qatar and Iran to top the section. Second-placed Korea Republic, with a game in hand, are still favourites to make it through, while both Team Melli and Qatar have their share of chances level with the Taeguk Warriors on points.