Australia and Japan are poised to be among the first teams to qualify for the World Cup finals on Saturday, and they are determined to grab the opportunity.
The Socceroos are unbeaten in their five Asian Group A games and can book their place in South Africa by either beating or drawing with Qatar in the searing heat of Doha.
Japan will join them if they take all three points against Uzbekistan in Tashkent, leaving Qatar, Bahrain and the Uzbeks to battle for the third place play-off slot.
In Group B, South Korea are in the driving seat with 11 points from five games, one ahead of North Korea and Saudi Arabia who have played a game more. Iran have five points from five matches.
South Korea, spearheaded by Manchester United’s Park Ji-Sung, travel to Dubai where the UAE, who are out of the running, have only pride to play for, while Iran need to beat North Korea in Pyongyang to stay in the race.
Australian coach Pim Verbeek has selected virtually all of the country’s high-profile players for their matches against Qatar then Bahrain on June 10 and Japan on June 17.
But Newcastle targetman Mark Viduka is missing after saying he needed to rest while Everton linchpin Tim Cahill is a doubt for Saturday.
Cahill pulled up clutching his left leg after blocking a clearance from Chelsea defender Alex in last weekend’s FA Cup final, and Verbeek will not want to risk aggravating the injury.
The 29-year-old, though, is determined to play and help Australia qualify.
“I’m anxious to play in the next game for Australia because I want to qualify for the World Cup,” said Cahill.
“It was a bang on my hip. It’s pretty sore, but you get loads of knocks and just get on with it.”
Japan look to be in fine form after inflicting 4-0 defeats on both Chile and Belgium in friendlies over the past week, although coach Takeshi Okada has made it clear there is no room for complacency.
“We need to refresh our minds for the Uzbekistan game, and definitely come home with a victory,” he said, having set his team a target of reaching the World Cup semi-finals.
South Korea, who made the semi-finals under Guus Hiddink at the 2002 World Cup, have added three new faces to their squad for the matches against UAE on Saturday, then Saudi Arabia on June 10 and Iran on June 17, both in Seoul.
But the onus will once again be on the likes of Park Ji-Sung, Monaco star Park Joo-Young and Dortmund’s Lee Young-Pyo.
Their key problem against the UAE will be the heat with midday temperatures over 40 degrees Celsius (101 degrees Fahrenheit) in Dubai.
“The heat makes it impossible for us to practise during the day and we have to limit our practices to evenings,” said coach Huh Jung-Moo.
“But I’m sure my players will overcome the heat come game time.”
Iran have their work cut-out if they want to make the finals for a second successive time with a formidable trip to secretive North Korea.
Iranian-American Afshin Qotbi, their new coach, will need to call on all the knowledge of Korean football he picked up in a long stint assisting Hiddink, Dick Advocaat and then Verbeek at South Korea.
But their preparations have not been perfect with a 1-0 defeat to lowly China this week in Qotbi’s first full international.
The Saudis rest on Saturday before facing South Korea next week and then North Korea on June 17.