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Jun 9, 2013

Qualification tension in Asia

The first of June's three 'Titanic Tuesdays' is behind the ten teams in the final round of the Asian zone of qualification for the 2014 World Cup. One nation (Japan) made it to Brazil, one (Lebanon) dropped out of the running completely, while two more (Qatar and Iraq) were pushed to the brink of elimination. With all kinds of emotions still swirling around the six others, they have to do it all again next Tuesday.

If Japan's clash with Australia was the big one last week then Uzbekistan's trip to South Korea is the one to watch next. A win for the host would almost guarantee a place at a ninth World Cup while an away victory puts a first ever stamp granting entry to the big-time in the Uzbekistan passport. A draw just leaves everything open until we do it all again seven days later.

Both teams currently occupy the top two automatic qualification spots in Group A with eleven points, one ahead of Iran, who at the moment sit in third - the playoff place. It's as tight and tense as a Michael Owen hamstring.

Korea are in the best and worst position. Goal difference puts the team on top and both of the remaining games are at home against Uzbekistan and Iran. The two visitors won't be relishing their trips east but have the luxury of their other game being at home against weaker members of the group. Unless Iran drop points against Lebanon at home or Uzbekistan do the same against Qatar a week later, Korea are going to need to win one of their games.

Usually, that wouldn't be seen as a major problem. Four times Uzbekistan have played in Korea and four times they have lost. This time feels a little different though. The Taeguk Warriors are under pressure, not playing well and led by a man who is stepping down on June 19 whatever happens. Choi Kang-hee didn't want the job in December 2011, has never given any impression of enjoying it and despite transforming Jeonbuk Motors from a mid-table K-League team into one of the best and most consistent sides in Asia, he just has not been able to get to grips with the national team. It is unlikely that he will be the only one relieved when he returns to his former club in just over ten days.

The situation could be worse. Trailing to Lebanon in Beirut until the 97th minute on Tuesday, Asia's most successful World Cup team were heading for an embarrassing and damaging defeat. It had been one of those nights for the Taeguk Warriors. Once again, an inability to defend a set-piece led to a goal being conceded. Then it was the turn of the attackers. Chance after chance was missed. The woodwork was hit three times, open goals were spurned, shots cleared off the line with the goalkeeper filling in the gaps between - it all pointed to a head-scratching yet soul-searching defeat.

Perhaps a last-gasp deflected free-kick was the only way it was going to happen and while a draw was still something of a disappointment, Kim Chi-woo's strike could be crucial in such a tight group.

The criticism was still fierce back in Seoul. Selections vary wildly from game to game, the defence looks increasingly disorganised and the coach doesn't seem to know what to do with Son Heung-min, the Korean player who enjoyed easily the best season in Europe, scoring 12 league goals for Hamburg. Lee Dong-gook, who started as the main striker, was more of his Middlesbrough than Jeonbuk Motors self, missing a number of gilt-edged chances but he was not the only one. "Now it's time to start worrying," said one headline, summing up the mood of millions.

In contrast, Uzbekistan are feeling good. Three straight wins means that there is a confidence that their barren run in East Asia can be ended and if ever there was a time to do so, it is now. Three points in Seoul means Brazil. It is not revealing any secrets to say that Uzbekistan are up for it. The team was not in qualification action last week and after a Middle East training camp, headed to China to win 2-1 in a friendly on Thursday.

The White Wolves seemingly have all the attributes to be one of Asia's top teams but have never quite made the leap. With technique and skill aplenty, that failure has often been put down to mentality. The Koreans are famed for strength in that field. Perhaps we will see what is true in Seoul.

Korea know all about Server Djeparov, the mulleted midfielder who not only looks like he's from the eighties, but seems to play at the pace of 30 years ago leaving others to run frantically around 21st century style. The playmaker also knows Seoul World Cup Stadium well after helping FC Seoul to the 2010 K-League title. He's in great form and makes Uzbekistan tick.

Time has run out for Lebanon due to Kim's late goal. The World Cup dream is officially over but what a ride it was for the boys from Beirut. That tale will be told again in the future but for now, the Cedars have dropped out of the story, well, almost, they travel to Tehran on Tuesday for a final game. Iran will have to stop thinking about the trip to South Korea and focus on not dropping any points in front of what should be an expectant crowd at the Azadi Stadium.

There is no doubting the big game in Group B. Australia simply need to beat Jordan to move above the inactive Oman into the second automatic qualification spot. Despite conceding a last-minute penalty in Japan on Tuesday, the Socceroos are feeling much better about themselves. The Oman awfulness on display in March when they somehow salvaged a point after being two down in Sydney was forgotten in a well-organised and energetic display in front of 63,000 fans at Saitama Stadium.

The question remaining now is whether coach Holger Osieck can summon the same levels of intensity from his players for what will be a very different test. It is one thing preparing for a Japanese onslaught when expectations are low but it is another to be expected to take the game to a less ambitious opponent at home. Jordan fourth but level on points with the Aussies need the win too.

In the group's other clash, already-qualified Japan take on bottom-placed Iraq in Doha. Iraq lost to Oman on Tuesday to become rooted to the bottom spot. Nothing less than a win will do or it's all over for the Lions of Mesopotamia and even then, third is the best bet.

After clinching a place in Brazil 2014, the first team to do so, Japan have other things on their mind - namely Brazil 2013. On June 15, the Samurai Blue kick off their Confederations Cup campaign against the hosts. With games against Italy and Mexico to follow, it is an excellent opportunity for Alberto Zaccheroni's men to see how good they actually are and what they have to do over the next 12 months.

For the others still fighting it out in Asia, it is all about the next 12 days.

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