The tension is building to a climax in the Asian Zone as 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™ qualifying draws to a close, with four teams set to emerge with tickets to the main event in the next few days. Group B leaders Japan are among the sides with high hopes of going through, and to book their place they need to avoid defeat at home against Australia in the penultimate round of games on 4 June.
FIFA.com caught up with Japan coach Alberto Zaccheroni in the build-up to that game, and the celebrated Italian tactician shared his thoughts on facing the Socceroos, his team's campaign so far and his experiences at the Samurai Blue helm.
Saitama will be the venue as Japan contest their seventh game in Group B so far, a historic meeting with section rivals Australia. The hosts need just a point to wrap up their qualification for Brazil 2014, and Zaccheroni is anxious for his charges to finish the job without delay. "We've been playing well since the start of the qualifiers," he said. "Our focus in each match has brought us stability.
"Our technical level has improved with every game. We're now one step away from the end of the voyage and qualification is within reach. That's our major objective. Although we wanted to ensure our qualification in our last game against Jordan, fate obviously preferred us to fight for it on home soil. Over the last ten years, we've always sealed qualification away from home, but today we have a chance to do it in front of our own supporters."
Satisfied so far Japan will go into the fixture with 13 points, having put together four wins and a draw while suffering a solitary defeat. That record speaks volumes for the standards they have maintained, and Zaccheroni is full of praise for his players. "I'm very satisfied with our qualifying campaign so far," he said.
"We were still unbeaten ahead of our last match and we played well even during that loss. The players have put in a lot of effort and they've shown that we're on the right track. Our success in these qualifiers is nothing but reward for that hard work and I can assure you that our technical level is constantly improving."
His side have nonetheless had to overcome challenges along the way, and Zaccheroni has no doubts about their most testing game so far: "Without hesitation, I'd say the match against Iraq in Saitama, for various reasons.
"We hadn't prepared as well as we could have and we were missing several key players, especially in defence. Our opponents arrived with a new-look team containing young players who were determined to prove themselves against us. It was a difficult win but one that gave us more confidence and clarity."
Over the last ten years, we've always sealed qualification away from home, but today we have a chance to do it in front of our own supporter.
It was engineering victories like that which put the Samurai Blue in a position to clinch their berth at Brazil 2014 in Amman earlier this year. Having beaten Jordan 6-0 at home, Zaccheroni's troops were clear favourites to prevail in the return encounter, but 90 minutes later they found themselves on the wrong end of a 2-1 scoreline and a genuine upset.
"It often gets said that nothing stays the same way forever in football and each new game is a new story," explained Zaccheroni. "We knew the Jordanians wanted to respond after their defeat in the first game, but despite everything we wanted to come out on top.
"We played very well and it's not as if we didn't create chances. Unfortunately, we let them go begging. At the same time, defensive errors cost us two goals. We even missed a penalty when we had a chance to reduce the deficit. We deserved better than to lose but, again, football doesn't obey any set rules and that's why I love it."
Japan will conclude their qualifying bid against Iraq on 11 June and, if they have guaranteed their place by then, Zaccheroni plans to rest players ahead of the FIFA Confederations Cup Brazil 2013. "Our calendar is very full in June, with important matches and long trips," said the Italian.
"If we manage to qualify in our next game, we'll be more relaxed against Iraq, but that doesn't mean we'll take that last match lightly. We'll go into it with our usual focus and professionalism, because that's the only way to win and play at our proper level."
Of course, few will be unduly surprised if Zaccheroni's side do complete their mission against Jordan. Since Korea/Japan 2002, the Samurai Blue have started every FIFA World Cup qualifying cycle as one of the region's heavy favourites – a level of expectation that some might think creates its own pressures.
"Actually, that really pleases me," said the man in charge. "The fact that all the predictions are in favour of the team I'm coaching means that we're doing our job very well and that Japanese football is making constant progress.
"As for the games themselves, I think that when we focus and perform at our usual level, with the star players we have we can put pressure on any team. That's why we're one of the favourites. So, like I said, I'm happy about that and it doesn't frighten me one bit."
With his side just one point away from the global showcase, the evidence surely speaks for itself. Zaccheroni's approach has helped bring Japan to the verge of their fifth consecutive qualification for the FIFA World Cup finals – and this one will be especially sweet if they can take the final step in front of their own fans.