The 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ Preliminary Draw in Durban threw up some intriguing pairings between Asia's last 20 participating teams, and the fixtures recently approved by football's governing body have merely added further spice to the much-anticipated qualifying competition.
On paper, it should be a relatively gentle introduction to their preliminary campaigns for Asia's big five, namely top seeds Australia, Japan, Korea Republic, Saudi Arabia and Iran, all of whom will open the their bids with a home match against their groups' lowest-ranked teams on 6 February. Having each qualified for the previous FIFA World Cup last year in Germany, all five will be fully expecting to translate their home advantage into opening victories when battle commences in less than two months' time.
Australia will play host to Qatar in Melbourne and the opener also marks newly-appointed Pim Verbeek's debut in the Socceroos dugout. Already, the former Korea Republic manager has stressed the importance of the home support's role in inspiring his team to get off to a winning start.
"I am hoping that the stadium will be full of Australian supporters getting behind the team," said the Dutchman. "Making the most of home ground advantage will be vital throughout the qualifying campaign."
Huh Jung-Moo, meanwhile, the man who has taken up the Korea Republic reins from Verbeek, will also be targeting a resounding win when his team entertain Turkmenistan in Seoul. So too will Japan's Takeshi Okada, Ivica Osim's successor, who will be keen to celebrate his return to the national team with a victory over Thailand in Tokyo.
Elsewhere, while Saudi Arabia will be expected to encounter few problems against Singapore, Iran - who have been without a head coach since July's AFC Asian Cup - will be anxious to prove that this uncertainty hasn't adversely affected their preparations for a potentially tricky opener against Syria.
New Year's eve away, June decisive
The date of 6 February marks the eve of the Spring Festival: the new year of Chinese lunar calendar. While the occasion represents the most important yearly occasion for family reunions and celebration across the country, the China team will be found away from home at Al Ain of United Arab Emirates, the venue which is set to host their vital showdown with Asian Cup champions Iraq.
The match comes as the first real test for Serbian coach Vladimir Petrovic, who succeeded Zhu Guanghu in September. Of all the 20 head coaches involved in Asia's qualifying campaign, Petrovic was the first to begin preparatory work as he called up the team together as early as two weeks ago for a training camp in Guangzhou. "Only a well-prepared team will be able to come up with satisfying results," he told *FIFA.com. * Matchday 2 comes on 26 March, before the qualifying action resumes in June, when the remaining four rounds of matches will be played within twenty days from June 2 to 22. While fans across the world's most populous continent will enjoy a memorable few weeks of enthralling football during that time, it will be a nervy, make-or-break time for the teams.
|**Group 1**||**Group 2**||**Group 3**||**Group 4**||**Group 5**|
|1||Australia||Japan||Korea Republic||Saudi Arabia||Iran|
|2||China PR||Bahrain||Korea DPR||Uzbekistan||Kuwait|
6 February 2008, Matchday 1: 1 v 4; 3 v 2
26 March 2008, Matchday 2: 4 v 3; 2 v 1
2 June 2008, Matchday 3: 4 v 2; 1 v 3
7 June 2008, Matchday 4: 2 v 4; 3 v 1
14 June 2008, Matchday 5: 4 v 1; 2 v 3
22 June 2008, Matchday 6: 1 v 2; 3 v 4
View the full match schedule as a PDF, by clicking on the link to the right hand side.