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Inside France's World Cup ceremony

 By John Duerden

Asia's World Cup preparations: How are Japan, Korea, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Australia set?

All five Asian World Cup participants are busy in this international break. ESPN FC takes a look at where they all stand as Russia 2018 comes into view.


Opposition: Mali and Ukraine. After tests against Brazil and Belgium last year, Japan stay in Europe for what should be easier games.

The squad: Keisuke Honda returns for the first time since November while injuries rule out Shinji Kagawa and Premier League due Maya Yoshida and Shinji Okazaki. Yosuke Ideguchi -- the midfielder who scored the spectacular goal in August against Australia that sealed Japan's place in Russia -- has not made it. Soon after moving to Leeds United in January, the 21 year-old was loaned to Spanish second-tier team Deportiva Leonesa, but has played not much more than 90 minutes since. Coach Vahid Halilhodzic can be unforgiving to those who don't play.

Issues: Okazaki's absence gives a chance for others to show they can score goals on the international stage. Honda, who plays for Liga MX club C.F. Pachuca, needs to remind the coach that he can still set the team's attacking tempo.


Opposition: Northern Ireland and Poland.

The squad: No real surprises, though eyebrows were slightly raised at the sight of five defenders being called from one club: Jeonbuk Motors. The usual suspects have been called up with little clamour for those left out to be included and vice-versa. Winger Lee Chung-Yong pays the price for not playing often at Crystal Palace.

Issues: Who will play in attack with Son Heung-Min -- if anyone? Coach Shin Tae-Yong switched to a 4-4-2 in November and was rewarded with Korea's best performance of the year. Should the Spurs star play up front alone, on the wing, a second striker or alongside someone else? Shin may be closer to the answer sometime next week. Tall striker Kim Shin-Wook has scored in recent games and will relish the chance to score against tougher opposition.

Former Borussia Dortmund full-back Park Joo-Ho is called up for the first time under Shin. Now back in Korea, Park has game time under his belt and is looking to stake his claim. The same goes for former Augsburg centre-back Hong Jeong-Ho. Both have work to do.

South Korean forward Son Heung-min
Son Heung-Min is in form, and will be key for South Korea.


Opposition: Tunisia and Algeria

The squad: Exciting Persepolis striker Ali Alipour misses out but Masoud Shojaei has been selected for the first time in seven months. There was some controversy last August as, when playing in Greece for Panionios, he faced an Israeli club in the UEFA Europa League. With the midfielder not playing since, it was assumed that, at 33, that was it. But he has returned and has a chance to play his way into the World Cup squad. There is plenty of competition in midfield however.

Issues: Carlos Queiroz has been in place since 2011, almost double the length of time of the other four Asian coaches combined. This is a time for evolution rather than revolution and the two games are chances to give a few squad players some minutes on the pitch. The coach has continually called for better preparation for big tournaments and while Algeria and Tunisia may not be the most glamorous opponents, they will give Iran the necessary tests.


Opposition: Ukraine and Belgium.

The squad: This is, in some ways, the first real squad for coach Juan Antonio Pizzi who arrived in November. It is an experienced squad with just one debutant: Ahmed Al-Faqi. The midfielder was born in Riyadh to Egyptian parents and has been the subject of interest from the Egypt national team. He is an exciting talent, but it remains to be seen if he can play his way to Russia. Experienced goalkeeper Abdullah Al-Mayouf played last month but is paying the price for losing his club place to former Bolton Wanderers star Ali Al-Habsi at Al-Hilal.

Issues: Pizzi will be looking closely at his Spanish-based trio. Fahad Al Muwallad, Salem Al-Dawsari and Yahya Al-Shehri were among the nine players sent on loan to Spain in January in order to gain some much needed international experience and exposure. The problem is that they have not played at all and the question is how sharp they are. There will also be interest in how an aging defence copes against Ukraine: a team seen as being similar to World Cup opening game opponents Russia.

Bert van Marwijk
Bert van Marwijk has a chance to look at his side for the first time.


Opposition: Norway and Colombia.

The squad: Andrew Nabbout was released mid-contract by a second-tier Malaysian team in 2016 but the winger has just been signed by Asian champions Urawa Reds of Japan and has been called up for the first time by Australia. Other than that, there are plenty of familiar faces such as Tim Cahill, Mile Jedinak, Aaron Mooy and Mat Ryan.

Issues: These are Bert van Marwijk's first games in charge of the Socceroos and he is on a short-term contract. Pragmatic at the best of times, such circumstances mean that the Dutchman is focused on Russia and Russia alone. There will be no risks or nods to the future. Like his predecessors, Van Marwijk will want a reliable goal scorer who can step into the shoes of 38-year-old Tim Cahill who is still the go-to man for the big goals.

Asian expert John Duerden is the author of Lions and Tigers: Story of Football in Singapore and Malaysia.Twitter: @JohnnyDuerden.


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