Asia's final qualifying round reaches its climax in June, with all four automatic spots for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™, as well the two play-off places, to be decided over the remaining three matchdays (4-18 June). Notably, this Tuesday could see the world's first qualified team, with a point against Australia at home enough to seal Japan's fifth consecutive passage to the world stage.
And Alberto Zaccheroni's hosts could even secure their place if they lose, provided Iraq fail to grab full points in Oman. Elsewhere in Group B, Qatar entertain Iran with neither side allowed any margin for slip-ups, while Korea Republic travel to Beirut seeking to restore their place at the summit with a win over Lebanon.
This pair are enjoying a rapidly-growing rivalry that continues to shape as one of Asia’s most eagerly anticipated match-ups. The match at Saitama's World Cup Stadium looks set to capture global attention for more reasons than one. Japan, of course, enter their penultimate match seeking to become the world's first qualified team, after agonisingly failing to grasp early progression with an unexpected 2-1 loss in Jordan. A draw is all that the hosts need to complete their mission, with qualification able to provide Zaccheroni's side with a timely boost heading into their 2013 FIFA Confederations Cup opener against Brazil on 15 June.
Trailing second-placed Jordan by a point, Australia are all too aware that a win will strengthen their hopes of the section's second spot. With a mere six points from five outings, the Australians are hoping to revive their stuttering fortunes with a second victory.
If Holger Osieck's side revive their first-leg form which saw them battle from behind to draw 1-1 against Japan with ten men, they will certainly cause problems for the hosts. The German tactician has opted to count on the experience of his old guard, with as many as half of his squad over 30 years old.
Zaccheroni, for his part, has a full-strength squad at his disposal this time around, with Keisuke Honda and Yuto Nagatomo, both of whom were absent in the Jordan match due to injuries, back in service. A 2-0 defeat to Bulgaria in the recent Kirin Challenge Cup, however, was a timely reminded that Japan can take nothing for granted even on home soil.
The other attractions
The other Group B match pits bottom side Iraq - with a game in hand over all bar Australia - against host side Oman. The visitors' hopes are bolstered by the return of midfield maestro Nashat Akram, while Alaa Abdul Zahra is expected to form the attacking line-up alongside captain Younis Mahmoud. On the opposite third, the Omanis, level with Australia on points, will be missing Ali Al Habsi due to shoulder surgery and marksman Imad Al Hosni through suspension. To fill the void left by the latter, 2009 Gulf Cup top scorer Hassan Rabia has been recalled.
With Group A leaders Uzbekistan sitting out the matchday with a bye, Korea Republic are hopeful of edging the Central Asians to the top place with their fourth triumph. It is, meanwhile, a must-win contest for Lebanon languishing at the bottom with a mere four points. On the surface, the hosts can take heart from their previous 2-1 win in Beirut from the last round, but things have since changed much, with notably captain Roda Antar's surprise retirement from international football. The visitors, too, are missing a series of key players including Ki Sungyueng and Koo Jachel through injuries. But veteran Kim Namil is called back to shore up the midfield, while reigning AFC Player of the Year Lee Keunho is likely to continue his attacking partnership upfront alongside towering Ulsan Hyundai team-mate Kim Shinwook.
Elsewhere in the section, Qatar and Iran, level on seven points, cross paths for their seventh FIFA World Cup qualifying fixture. Coach Carlos Queiroz has seen his side largely reshuffled with number one goalkeeper Seyed Rahmati sidelined, while forward Karim Ansarifard has been omitted. The hosts, meanwhile, must make do without marksman Sebastian Soria, although defender Mohammed Kasola returns from suspension. A recent 3-1 win over Latvia sees the Qataris enter the game in good form, with coach Fahad Thani targeting his first qualifying victory in charge.
Player to watch
Topping the fourth qualifying round's scoring chart with four goals, Keisuke Honda is expected to resume his talismanic role with Japan having missed their last outing against Jordan. Despite featuring in CSKA Moscow's win over Anzhi on Saturday, the 26-year-old midfielder stated he is fully fit to play against Australia.
What they said
"At this moment everybody in the group can be in [automatic qualification] and everybody can be out. So it’s still open for all the teams. It’s my major goal in this moment of my career to qualify Iran for the World Cup,” Iran coach Carlos Queiroz.