Group 1 of the fourth round of Asian qualifying for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ includes the confederation's new powerhouse, one of the traditional Asian giants, a team that reached a playoff for Germany 2006, one of the best-performing teams of the third qualifying round, and the last-minute comeback kings of the third phase.
Australia and Japan will be favoured to take the top two places in the group, but Bahrain matched the Japanese stroke for stroke in Group 2 of the third stage, and will not be underestimated by either of the two nominal favourites. Uzbekistan, too, will present a formidable obstacle to their group rivals; the former Soviet republic dazzled Asia in the third round of qualifying, amassing a formidable goal tally and defeating the fancied Saudis 3-0 at home in one of the biggest shocks of the Asian qualifying series so far.
Japan. Semi-finalists at the last AFC Asian Cup and participants at every FIFA World Cup since France 1998, the Japanese certainly have recent history on their side. Much will depend on the form of their mercurial playmaker Shunsuke Nakamura, who is rapidly establishing himself as the icon of East Asian football.
Australia. Although the former Oceania nation failed to make a particularly good impression at the AFC Asian Cup 2007, they showed their credentials in the third Asian qualifying stage, racing to an early lead in the group and assuring themselves of a place in the final ten with a game to spare. All their group rivals will be wary of a team which boasts a slew of players with European experience.
*The outsiders *Uzbekistan. Inspired by their attacking trio of Maksim Shatskikh, Server Djeparov and Timur Kapadze, the men from central Asia caused a stir in the third stage of Asian qualifying with their purposeful, aggressive style of football, losing only their final game of the third stage to Saudi Arabia after they had already assured themselves of a place in the final ten.
Qatar. Going into the last matchday in Group 1 of the third qualifying stage, Qatar were faced with the daunting task of overcoming the Asian champions, Iraq, away from home. To almost universal surprise, they achieved their objective, and no-one will be underestimating the team that recovered from an opening-day thrashing by Australia to qualify from one of the toughest third-round groups.
*The players to watch *Tim Cahill (AUS), Brett Emerton (AUS), Harry Kewell (AUS), Shunsuke Nakamura (JAP), Yasuhito Endo (JAP), A'ala Hubail (BHR), Maksim Shatskikh (UZB) Server Djeparov (UZB), Sebastian Quintana (QAT).
*The crunch match *Australia-Japan. The rivalry between these two countries has been fierce in recent years, both at club and international level. Japan gained some consolation for their 3-1 defeat at the hands of Australia at Germany 2006 with a penalty shootout victory in the Asian Cup quarter-finals, and their occasional meetings prior to the Australians' entry into the Asian confederation have shown that the two nations are very evenly matched on the football field.
A look back
Japan 1-0 Bahrain, 22 June 2008, Saitama. The Japanese had been stunned by a defeat in Bahrain early in the third group stage, and were desperate to regain some pride in the return battle. In the end, it took them until the final minute of the game to score a freakish goal which gave them their revenge, and put them top of the group. The rivalry between Takeshi Okada's side and the 'nearly men' of 2006 will be one of the intriguing features of Group A.
*The stat *15, the number of goals scored by Uzbekistan in their third round group. By comparison, Qatar scored only five goals in their successful Group 1 campaign.
Did you know?
Two of the nations contesting this group will be competing against each other for the very first time. Australia and Uzbekistan have never met at senior international level, and the conditions in central Asia will be another new experience in a campaign full of novelties for Asian new boys Australia.
Can Bahrain put the ghosts of 2006, and their play-off defeat by Trinidad and Tobago, to rest by qualifying from Group 1? Click below to 'Add your comment'.