Tough test for Asian hopefuls
Australia begins its push for a place in the 2011 AFC Asian Cup finals on Wednesday with an inexperienced team meeting Indonesia in Jakarta, while 2007 semi-finalists Japan face a tough test in Bahrain.
Australia boss Pim Verbeek has decided not to call upon his European contingent of stars for their opening qualifying match, instead opting for a squad entirely made up of A-League players. They are so inexperienced that only six members of the squad have played for the Socceroos before, led by veterans Craig Moore and Archie Thompson. Tom Pondeljak, Nikolai Topor-Stanley, Danny Allsopp and Matt McKay are the others who have worn the green and gold at senior level.
Melbourne Victory's Rodrigo Vargas hopes he and the other A-Leaguers will not disappoint. "It's an opportunity for all the guys here," he told reporters from Jakarta. "We've got 21 boys here and whoever gets the chance, I'm sure they'll be doing their best to make a claim and give Pim a headache in the knowledge they can do well representing their country."
Indonesia, ranked 144 in the world, have already played one qualifying game, fighting hard to earn a 0-0 draw in Oman. Also in Australia's group is Kuwait, who open their tilt at qualifying with a home tie against Oman.
Asian heavyweights Japan travel to Bahrain, with both countries winning their opening qualifiers last week. The Japanese beat Yemen 2-1 at home while Bahrain disposed of Hong Kong 3-1 in the former British territory.
But three-time champions Japan have injury worries ahead of their clash, with both their top goalkeepers out. Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi has been diagnosed with a torn right calf muscle while Seigo Narazaki has an injured left ankle. In the other group match, Hong Kong play Yemen at the Ali Mohsen Al-Muraisi Stadium.
United Arab Emirates are seen as favourites to progress from Group C with a home tie against Uzbekistan to give them two wins out of two, having already thrashed Malaysia 5-0.
Group D action sees Lebanon playing in Beirut against Syria, with the home side desperate to get points on the board after losing their opener to Vietnam.
China, Syria and Vietnam each have three points, with China and Vietnam having already played two games. South-East Asian hopes on Wednesday rest with Peter Reid's Thailand and under-achieving Singapore.
The Thais face a test of their character against Ali Daei's Iran in Bangkok while Singapore, who were thrashed 6-0 by the Iranians in their first game, will be hoping to avoid a similar embarrassment at home to Jordan. Reid can select from an injury-free squad, but is worried about lapses in concentration that have troubled his team recently.
"We seem to lose concentration near the end of the game. We conceded late goals against Vietnam in the Suzuki Cup and Denmark in the King's Cup," he said. "But we will be well-prepared and I am sure it will be an exciting game."
The top two teams from the five qualifying groups advance to the finals. Five teams have already booked their tickets with Qatar qualifying automatically as hosts while Iraq, Saudi Arabia and South Korea are assured of their places after finishing as the top three in the 2007 tournament. India make the finals after winning the AFC Challenge Cup last year, an event featuring second tier Asian nations.