Journey to Asian glory opens with key match-ups
The much-anticipated 2015 AFC Asian Cup qualifying campaign commences on Wednesday, with 20 teams competing for one of 12 places to join hosts and 2011 runners-up Australia, defending champions Japan, last edition's third-placed team Korea Republic and 2012 AFC Challenge Cup winners Korea DPR at the continental showpiece.
The contenders are divided into five groups, with the top-two finishers and the best third-placed side progressing. The champions of the 2014 AFC Challenge Cup will complete the 16-nation line-up at Australia 2015.
Featuring Asia's higher ranked sides, including seven of the last remaining ten in the ongoing 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™ qualifying, this campaign looks set to capture the imagination of fans from all corners of the continent and beyond. Join FIFA.com as we preview some of the key showdowns in the opening round.
Saudi Arabia-China PR
The two sides may have bowed out of Asia's qualifying for Brazil 2014, but this match is likely to be pivotal to the outcome of the group considering what they have achieved on the continental stage. Saudi Arabia are among the most successful nations in Asia having lifted the trophy on three occasions. China, meanwhile, twice stormed into the final only to lose out.
While they are no strangers on the continental front, it is the hosts that enter the contest with a proud record of three wins and one draw. The Saudis emerged 2-0 victors in their first meeting in the 1984 final as they clinched their maiden Asian title. Their last meeting came in the quarter-finals at United Arab Emirates 1996, when the Green Falcons came from two goals down to run out 4-3 winners.
Guiding the teams are a pair of former Real Madrid bosses, with China coach Jose Antonio Camacho challenging compatriot Juan Ramon Lopez Caro, who recently took over to replace Frank Rijkaard.
Lopez Caro called back striking prodigy Naif Hazazi, who was on target in their recent 3-0 warm-up win against Ettifaq, although former AFC Player of the Year Yasser Qahtani remains a doubt. On the opposite side, the Chinese lost to Oman 1-0 in the build-up and they must make do without central back Feng Xiaoting ruled out due to a thigh injury.
The other attractions
With Saudi Arabia welcoming China, fellow Group C campaigners Iraq entertain Indonesia. While an emphatic home win should be within the Iraqis grasp, the match provides coach Hakeem Shaker, who recently replaced Zico, with a chance to take stock of his transitional side ahead of their crucial FIFA World Cup qualifier against Oman in June.
A solitary-goal defeat of China has provided Paul Le Guen's Oman with a timely boost ahead of their Group A home game against Syria, but the visitors can take heart from their title-winning campaign in the recent WAFF Championship. The other group contest looks an intriguing match-up with Jordan, who have enjoyed an excellent Brazil 2014 campaign thus far, facing newly crowned AFF Suzuki Cup kings Singapore.
Many eyes will be on Group B favourites Iran, who are desperate to seek revenge against visiting Lebanon after being stunned 1-0 in Beirut in their last FIFA World Cup qualifier. In the other game, in-form Kuwait entertains Thailand.
Malaysia coach Rajagopal Krishnasamy has openly stated his intention to seal qualification, but their recent 3-0 loss to Iraq may suggest otherwise as they open against Group D favourites Qatar. Under newly appointed Fahad Thani, the Qataris enter the home game on the back of a 1-0 defeat of Lebanon. Bahrain, meanwhile, travel to Yemen seeking to prove themselves after their 6-1 loss to Kuwait recently.
In Group E, in-form Uzbekistan should have few problems against visiting Hong Kong, while United Arab Emirates arrive in Vietnam boosted by their gold-medal performance in January's Gulf Cup. However, the visitors will be wary of hosts' home form, which saw them win 2-0 in their previous meeting during the 2007 AFC Asian Cup group campaign.
Player to watch
While veteran Younis Mahmoud remains the key man up front, striking sensation Mohanad Abdulraheem Karrar has caught the attention since finishing as the tournament’s Most Valued Player in last year's AFC U-19 Championship. The 2012 AFC Youth Player of the Year recently scored twice in their 3-0 friendly defeat of Malaysia.
8 - Among the 20 contenders, four teams have won collectively won the Asian title eight times. While Iran and Saudi Arabia are both three-time winners, Kuwait and Iraq have each claimed one championship apiece.
What they said
"We were dominant in Beirut [in our last meeting with Lebanon] and created many chances but failed to score. They had just one chance and took advantage of it. We must show them what we are capable of this time around," Iran captain Javad Nekounam
2015 AFC Asian Cup qualifying matchday 1 fixtures
Group A: Oman-Syria, Jordan-Singapore
Group B: Iran-Lebanon, Thailand-Kuwait
Group C: Iraq-Indonesia, Saudi Arabia-China PR
Group D: Yemen-Bahrain, Qatar-Malaysia
Group E: Uzbekistan-Hong Kong, Vietnam-United Arab Emirates