Stalwarts Japan, South Korea lead Asian World Cup qualifying
Japan was the first team to qualify for the 2006 and 2010 World Cups and the way things are going, could complete the hat trick for the 2014 tournament. A win over Iraq on Sept. 11 would give the team more than a foot in Brazil. It would also end a special summer, with Olympic success and the transfer of Shinji Kagawa to Manchester United, very nicely indeed.
The Samurai Blue have seven points from three games, five ahead of any of its rivals in Group B -- though some have played a game less. Only 10 of the 46 nations in the Asian confederation still entertain dreams of Brazil, and they have been split into two groups of five. The top two from each qualify automatically, and there is a playoff route available for those who finish in third.
That is not a path Japan will have to take. It is a question of when and not if. The Asian champion has been helped by a favorable schedule that has seen three of its first four games at home to teams from West Asia -- usually not the best travelers. A comfortable 3-0 win over Oman in the opening match was followed four days later by a 6-0 thrashing of a tired Jordan.
Then came the toughest match of the eight -- an away game in Australia. Even then, Japan had some luck, arriving down under before the host, which had to make a much longer trip back from Oman. The game ended 1-1. On Tuesday, it gets Iraq at home. It should be another three points, and with the other teams in the group taking points off each other, it is looking very good for coach Alberto Zaccheroni.
It is not all about schedules. Performances have been smooth and assured. The Italian has a settled team and system that he is not about to change, not even for a Manchester United star. Keisuke Honda, overshadowed by Kagawa in Europe, is still the main man in Japan and gets the central role.
"Honda is an important player I always call up," Zaccheroni said last week. "I think his best position is behind the front line. This is his position."
Kagawa is not a big fan of playing on the left.
"I'm not a player who creates chances there," he said after the Oman win. "I could not move in further,"
But as long as Japan keeps winning, the Italian coach is unlikely to care. Zaccheroni has warned his players to be wary of a talented Iraqi team. It is led by Zico, who took Japan to Asian Cup success in 2004 and World Cup failure two years later. The "White Pele" will not have too much insider knowledge of a Samurai Blue side that has completely changed in the past six years. He has enough of a challenge getting to know his own players. The fact that he still lives in Brazil and spends so little time in the Middle East is starting to rankle in Baghdad. A good result -- and that would be avoiding defeat in front of 60,000 fans at Saitama Stadium -- would help.
The Lions of Mesopotamia will fight it out with the others -- Australia, Jordan and Oman -- for second. Only one point separates that pack chasing Japan. Australia was expected to match the leader stride for stride but has made a sluggish start with two points from its first two games.
A win in Jordan on Tuesday turns sluggish into decent while defeat would really pile the pressure on Australia's coach Holger Osieck. A 3-1 friendly loss in Scotland last month added to worries that the German is placing too much faith in tried and trusted faces relatively regardless of form.
It won't be easy in Amman. Jordan can't afford to lose and was one of the most impressive teams in the previous round of qualifying, a fact not reflected in its 6-0 thrashing in Japan in June and its bottom place in the group. After a 1-1 draw at home to Iraq, Jordan had to make a 20-hour journey east to take on the Asian champion and arrived in Tokyo just 48 hours before kickoff, exhausted and jetlagged. Being reduced to 10 men in the first half did not help.
Australian defender Sasa Ognenovski warned his teammates not to read too much into Jordan's Japanese nightmare.
"We really need the win, but at home they will be tougher and smarter than they were in Japan," Ognenovski said. "I actually see them as a bit of a danger team."
South Korea (six points) leads Group A and is the only team of the 10 with a perfect record after convincing wins over Qatar (four points) and Lebanon (one point). This is a young but talented side, containing a number of players who won bronze at the Olympics. Ki Sung-yeung has taken his passing skills to the new darlings of the English Premier League, Swansea City, for a fee of around $9 million, Championship club Cardiff City paid almost half that for young winger Kim Bo-kyoung, and Park Chu-young has left Arsenal for La Liga's Celta Vigo. A win in Uzbekistan will confirm South Korea's grip on the group and put an eighth successive World Cup firmly in sight.
Uzbekistan (one point), still looking for its first appearance, can't afford to lose. The fact that there is talent in the team was confirmed in the previous round of qualification when it took 16 points from a possible 18 in a tough group including Japan and North Korea.
Talent may not be in doubt, but mental strength is. Old fears reawakened after a last-minute home defeat to Iran (four points) in the opening game that Uzbekistan had dominated. A jittery federation fired the head coach. The new guy didn't do much better in the second game with a 1-1 draw in Lebanon.
If Iran is to take advantage of any Uzbek stumble and Qatar's inaction, it will have to win in Beirut. Lebanon is not going to qualify but can make things difficult for others. Carlos Queiroz's men have four points from two games -- the win in Tashkent was followed by a frustrating goalless tie at home to Qatar -- and with South Korea coming to Tehran in October, need the three points on Tuesday in front of 30,000 fans in Beirut. The pressure is on.