North Korea, Saudi Arabia and Iran are bidding for automatic berths at next year’s World Cup in South Africa in an intriguing final round showdown in Asian qualifying tomorrow.
The North Koreans will book their ticket to the World Cup for the first time in 44 years if they win their clash against the Saudis in Riyadh.
But even a draw could prove enough, depending on Iran’s result in Seoul against the already qualified South Koreans.
North Korea are level on 11 points with Saudi Arabia in Group B but have a superior goal difference of plus-two. Iran are a further point adrift in fourth spot.
Iran must beat South Korea to have any chance of winning an automatic World Cup spot, although a draw and a Saudi defeat could clinch their place in the play-off against the third-placed team from Group A.
North Korea last reached the World Cup finals in England in 1966, where they advanced to the quarter-finals. If they qualify it will be the first time that both Koreas will be at soccer’s showpiece.
The North Koreans have never won in Saudi Arabia, while the Saudis are bidding for their fifth consecutive World Cup finals appearance.
“We knew we had to get four points from our last two games,” Saudi’s Portuguese coach Jose Peseiro said.
Iran’s coach Afshin Qotbi is confident his team will win in South Korea.
“I believe Iran will qualify for the 2010 World Cup as the Iranian players have great self-confidence to beat the South Korean squad on its own turf,” he said, even though Iran have yet to beat South Korea in their past four World Cup qualifiers.
“Perhaps I know the South Korean squad better than its own coach because I was with them for two World Cups,” said Qotbi, who had a long stint with the South Korean national side.
Australia and Japan, who have already claimed the top two places in Group A, meet in their final match in Melbourne, with the Aussies favorites to finish top.
Australia hold a two-point lead over Japan and need only a draw to top the group, while the understrength Japanese must win.
Captain Yuji Nakazawa is running a high temperature and is a doubt for Japan, who are already without Celtic star Shunsuke Nakamura and four other regulars.
Australian goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer said his teammates were hoping to beat Japan and go through the final phase of qualifying without conceding a goal.
“We’ve had an amazing run of seven games without conceding a goal, and if we can continue that to eight, we’ve got a good chance of beating Japan,” Schwarzer said.
Japan have yet to beat Australia in three World Cup qualifiers going back four decades, but overall the teams have won five times each with six draws.
Bahrain need only a point from their home game against Uzbekistan in Manama to finish third in Group A and go into a play-off with the third-placed team from Group B.
Whoever wins that play-off match will then take on Oceania champions New Zealand over two legs, with the victor securing a place in South Africa.
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