Japan and North Korea go in search of crucial home victories tomorrow to boost their World Cup final hopes, while heavyweights Iran and Saudi Arabia meet in a must-win match in Tehran.
The Japanese, who trail Australia by two points after four games in Asian qualifying Group A, want to make the most of home advantage against Bahrain to ramp up the pressure on the Socceroos, who play Uzbekistan on Wednesday.
In tomorrow’s other Group A game, the Uzbekis, who have just one point so far, host Qatar, who have four points.
Equally critical are the matches in Group B, where North Korea lag South Korea by a point. They play basement team United Arab Emirates (UAE) in Pyongyang before traveling to Seoul to take on their southern neighbors next week.
With South Korea on eight points, the North on seven, Iran on six and the Saudis on four, the outcome of this next round of matches could have far-reaching consequences, with just the top two from each group qualifying.
The third-placed teams play off, with the winner facing New Zealand to claim the fifth slot available for South Africa in 2010.
Saudi Arabia have made the last four World Cup finals, but are in danger of missing out on a fifth with a daunting task ahead in Tehran’s Azadi Stadium against Ali Daei’s Iran.
They will be without 2007 Asian Player of the Year Yasser Al Qahtani after the striker was suspended for failing to turn up at their training camp on Tuesday.
It is a big setback for coach Jorge Peseiro, whose team could only manage a goalless draw in Riyadh against Iraq in a friendly last weekend.
A trip to Pyongyang and the Kim Il-sung Stadium is never easy, but despite having just one point from four matches, the UAE refuse to abandon their dreams of reaching the finals.
But they know they must beat North Korea to stay alive.
“The task is difficult, but not impossible,” said UAE FA official Mohammad Mattar Ghorab, whose team has been preparing for their trip in Beijing. “We have complete confidence and faith in our players, and their capabilities to achieve positive results.”
Japan are well placed behind Australia, but coach Takeshi Okada, who has called up his big-name European stars led by Celtic’s Shunsuke Nakamura, warned that Bahrain will be no pushovers.
“I think Bahrain are a tough match-up for any team, not just us,” he said ahead of the match in Saitama.
The last time the two teams met was during qualification for the 2011 Asian Cup in January. Then, for the second time in the space of 12 months, Japan lost.
Tomorrow’s other match sees Uzbekistan desperate to claim all three points at home to Qatar before they make the trek to Australia next week to face Pim Verbeek’s men in Sydney.
Coach Mirdjalal Kasimov has named three new caps in his provisional squad, including midfielder Stanislav Andreev, goalkeeper Michael Naumov and defender Artyom Filiposyan.
In-form striker Anvarjon Soliev, as well as Islom Inomov and Ulugbek Bakaev, have all been recalled.
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