Asian champions Japan can move within touching distance of the 2014 World Cup by extending their unbeaten record against Oman today, while Iran can leapfrog South Korea in Group A.
The Blue Samurai are odds-on to reach their fifth consecutive World Cup after picking up 10 points from their first four games in Group B to move five points clear at the halfway mark.
While they cannot confirm their ticket to Brazil this week, a victory at Muscat’s Sultan Qaboos Sport Complex would open up an eight-point lead and allow Alberto Zaccheroni’s side to start making plans for the summer of 2014.
Despite the absence of injured Manchester United midfielder Shinji Kagawa, who scored the late winner against former World Cup winners France in Paris last month, Japan enter the match as strong favorites.
Japan have never lost in seven World Cup qualifiers against Oman and they beat them 3-0 in Saitama, Japan, in June. In Muscat, they won 1-0 during their successful campaigns in 1998 and 2006, while they drew 1-1 in the 2010 qualifiers.
However, Zaccheroni has left little to chance by naming a very strong squad for the match with 13 European-based players, including the talismanic Keisuke Honda, who has four goals in Japan’s four games so far.
Kagawa will miss the match with a knee injury, but Zaccheroni, whose side also lost 4-0 to Brazil last month, is confident that they can cope with the absence of the attacking midfielder.
“Don’t forget that the players that have come in to deputize have done a great job,” the Italian said. “Kagawa is not here this time, but I’m sure that whoever fills in for him will do well.”
While his team will be favored to pick up another three points today, Zaccheroni remains wary of the threat posed by Oman, who beat Jordan 2-1 last month.
“Oman are one of the more organized and balanced teams in the group,” he said. “They sat back and defended in our last match, but they will come at us this time.”
Today’s other Group B game is at the Grand Hamad Stadium in Doha, Qatar, where both Iraq and Jordan will look to get their qualification campaigns back on track after disappointing defeats last month.
Jordan lost 2-1 in Oman, while former Asian Cup winners Iraq, coached by Brazilian legend Zico, allowed Australia to score twice in the final 10 minutes as they lost by the same score to the Socceroos.
In Group A, Iran will look to move ahead of South Korea into top spot with a win against Uzbekistan at the Azadi Stadium.
Carlos Queiroz’s side enjoyed a morale-boosting 1-0 win against South Korea at the same venue last month, despite playing with 10 men for much of the second half following the dismissal of Soleimani Shojaei.
Javad Nekounam’s 76th-minute winner was only the second goal scored by Iran in four matches in Group A, following Mohammad Reza Khalatbari’s breakaway stoppage-time effort to beat Uzbekistan 1-0 in June.
Uzbekistan will be keen to avenge that loss and the central Asian side buoyed their hopes of a first ever World Cup appearance when they beat Qatar 1-0 in Doha last month. A win in Tehran would also put them top of the tight Group A.
There will also be plenty at stake when the group’s bottom two sides, Qatar and Lebanon, meet at Doha’s Jassim Bin Hamad Stadium, with both capable of putting themselves back in the frame for Brazil.