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By ESPN Staff

Japan and Saudis to clash in Asia Cup qualifiers

KUALA LUMPUR, Jan 4 (Reuters) - Champions Japan will face fellow World Cup finalists Saudi Arabia in the 2007 Asian Cup qualifying competition following Wednesday's draw.

Group B also features two World Cup sides with Iran facing 2002 semi-finalists South Korea. Australia, who were officially admitted to the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) on January 1, are in Group D with Bahrain, Kuwait and Lebanon.

The 2007 Asian Cup will be jointly hosted by Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia and Vietnam.

Japan have won the past two Asian Cup tournaments and are expected to qualify comfortably with the Saudis. Also in Group A are Yemen and India and Japan's first qualifier is at home to India on February 22.

The AFC has given World Cup teams the option of postponing their qualifiers on March 1, which is an official match day on the FIFA calendar, if they preferred to organise friendlies.

Kozo Tashima, Japan's technical director, told journalists a game against Saudi Arabia would provide them with solid preparation for the World Cup starting in June.

'Every game will be tough but we are looking foward to playing the Saudis on March 1,' Tashima said.

'We prefer to play the Saudis on that date because it will be a tough match and can serve two purposes, both as a qualifier and a World Cup warm-up game.'

He said Japan would be able to call on their Europe-based players for the Saudi game because it falls on a FIFA match day.

Kim Dae-up, South Korea's international relations manager, said players such as Manchester United's Park Ji-sung and Tottenham Hotspur's Lee Young-pyo should be available for their March 1 home match against Iran.

'We have the option of postponing the match but we will probably go ahead as it will be good competition before the World Cup,' he said. Group B is completed by Syria and Taiwan.

Australia, due to compete in the World Cup in Germany for the first time since 1974, were ranked among the bottom six teams for Wednesday's draw because they have no record in previous Asian Cup events.

'We would have played wherever they put us,' said John Boultbee, head of Soccer Australia's International Department.

'This year we have six matches that are quality, competitive games against top teams in the Asian Cup qualifiers. We also have the World Cup.

'We've never had so many meaningful matches in a year and that is significant for Australian football.'

All of Australia's Group D opponents are from the Middle East which means they should have a good chance of fielding their European-based players, Boultbee said.

China, the 2004 Asian Cup runners-up, appear to have a comfortable route to the finals in Group E against Iraq, Singapore and Palestine.