Socceroos begin tricky World Cup qualifying
BANGKOK, Feb 4 (Reuters) - Mammoth scorelines of up to 31-0 will be a distant memory for Australia when they begin their journey to the 2010 World Cup this week in a group they will wish they could have avoided.
Having strolled into the 2006 finals with cricket-score victories against fishermen and taxi drivers from Tahiti and the Solomon Islands, things will be different for Australia this time around.
By switching confederations to Asia, the Socceroos have chosen a rockier road and could struggle in Group One, which they share with Asian Cup holders Iraq, 2002 World Cup qualifiers China and tricky Gulf side Qatar -- their opponents in Wednesday's opening match.
Having flirted with the last eight in their second World Cup finals in 2006, the Socceroos had a humbling introduction to Asian soccer and struggled with humidity and internal rifts to scrape into last year's Asian Cup quarter-finals.
However, their new coach, former South Korea boss Pim Verbeek, knows not to underestimate the opposition and will field mostly European-based players against Qatar.
'They will come for a point, that's quite clear,' the Dutchman said. 'We know they will come here to defend and play on the counter-attack. We have to respect that.'
The spotlight will also be on Iraq, no longer rag-tag underdogs following their stunning Asian Cup triumph last year.
With only a single World Cup appearance to their name, Iraq have drafted-in Norwegian Egil Olsen, a coach with a proven World Cup record having steered his country to the 1994 and 1998 finals and to number two in the FIFA rankings.
They face China, the 2004 Asian Cup runners-up, in Dubai in the first of their home matches in the so-called 'group of death', none of which will be in violence-torn Iraq.
Japan, who reached the last three World Cups, have landed a spot in Group Two alongside Oman, Bahrain and Wednesday's opponents Thailand, none of whom have reached the World Cup.
After leading Japan to their first finals in 1998, Takeshi Okada was the first choice to replace ailing Bosnian coach Ivica Osim and has dismissed talk of an easy ride.
'We are not taking anything for granted,' Okada said.
'We will need to be very careful against Thailand. People have been saying we'll beat them easily but they don't have the responsibility I do. The buck stops with me.'
Three-times World Cup qualifiers Iran begin their 2010 campaign in Tehran without a coach having yet to agree terms with former Spain coach Javier Clemente.
They take on in-form part-timers Syria, who ditched their Italian coach Antonio Cabrini last month after failing to secure funding for his salary.
They share an all-Middle East Group Five with Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates, who have each made one appearance at the finals.
Former Asian Cup winners Saudi Arabia begin their quest for a fifth World Cup finals against a fast-improving Singapore team in Riyadh on Wednesday. They are in Group Four with Lebanon and Uzbekistan, who meet in Beirut.
South Korea, the most successful Asian side in World Cup history, should have no trouble securing three points at home to unfancied Turkmenistan.
The 2002 World Cup semi-finalists have opted for local coach Huh Jung-moo for their 2010 campaign, which will include two highly-charged matches with North Korea. The North take on Jordan in Amman in the other Group Three game.
Of the 43 teams who took part in Asian qualifying, a maximum of five countries will advance to the 32-team 2010 finals.
The top two teams in the five pools will progress to round four, where the winners and runners-up of two groups qualify.
The two third-placed teams will meet in a playoff, with the winners facing the Oceania champions for the final World Cup berth.