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Oct 12, 2011

Asian ambitions taking shape

Arsenal striker Park Chu-Young left the pitch during South Korea's 2-1 World Cup qualification win over United Arab Emirates looking a little confused. It could have been the clash of heads that required ten stitches or he could have been wondering why, as he is currently the number one striker in Asia, he is unable to get any playing time for the London club.

Since arriving at Emirates Stadium at the end of August, the former Monaco marksman has yet to feature in the Premier League, but since putting pen to paper he has been on fire with the national team, scoring seven goals in four games.

"I can only continue training to the best of my ability," said Park as he faced the inevitable barrage of question as to when he will next appear in an Arsenal shirt. The watching Steve Bruce and Niall Quinn, returning to the same Suwon Stadium where Ireland lost to Spain in 2002, were left wondering if they had signed the wrong Korean striker for Sunderland. Ji Dong-Won, as the player admitted himself, was disappointing.

Luckily, Park is on fire and his goals have been very well taken. A lovely hat-trick at home to Lebanon was followed by a vital strike in Kuwait and then came two against Poland, and Arsenal team-mate Lukasz Fabianski. That was followed by another against the still pointless UAE to leave the visitors' World Cup hopes looking dead and buried. No surprise them that the Seoul media are now calling the 26 year-old, 'one shot, one kill Park'.

At the halfway stage of the third round of qualifying - with three games down, three to go - Korea are just one of the big guns moving closer to the final stage. They only need to finish in the top two of their group, one of five, to progress. Korea have seven points, the same as Iran and Japan while Australia have nine. Elsewhere, it is a little less predictable.

Saudi Arabia, ever presents on the global stage from 1994 to 2006, have still to win. After 270 minutes of football, they have scored just once and collected just two points. An opening night draw in Oman would not have been so bad if they hadn't then lost 3-1 at home to Australia. Then came a trip to South-East Asia.

According to the famous song, one night in Bangkok makes a hard man humble and on Tuesday it certainly made Frank Rijkaard frustrated. The Thai capital is a tough place to go these days with the team improving under German coach Winfried Schaefer. The visitors had the best of the chances but were unable to find a way through.

Thailand's Elephants head to the home of the Green Falcons next month and with Australia out of sight, it looks to be a battle between these two for the second spot. Despite the Saudi troubles, a win in Riyadh would put them in second.

Paul Le Guen needs more than one win to reach such lofty heights. The Frenchman has lost all three games with Oman, the latest a 3-0 defeat in Sydney. If the team can beat the Socceroos in Muscat, they would still be in with a shout, but on present form, it looks highly unlikely.

If Rijkaard is nervous and Le Guen worried then Jose Camacho also has much on his mind. The former Spain and Real Madrid coach only took the China job in August but is already experiencing the special frustrations that only China can deliver. The draw seemed favourable, the opening game was a win, if a little shakily achieved at home to Singapore, but the rest has not followed the new script. Instead, it is sounding familiar to Chinese fans who will remember exiting at the penultimate round on the past two occasions.

After losing in Jordan last month, China then fell foul of Iraq in Shenzhen - almost ten years to the day since the team qualified for its only World Cup, a feat more fondly remembered by the year. Behind to a first half Younis Mahmoud goal, the team threw everything at the ten-man Lions of Mesopotamia but were unable to find a way past the inspired Mohammed Gassid in goal.

FIFA could provide some relief for the world's most populous country, however. The recent ruling that Iraq is not secure enough for football means that Zico's men lose home advantage and the crucial showdown will take place in Qatar. Wherever the destination, anything less than a win would leave China staring into the abyss.

Jordan, Asia's most-improved team of late, are looking forward to a place in the final round for the first time ever after a third straight win. The 3-0 victory in Singapore should be replicated in Ammam next month and will all but confirm a place in the last ten - another notable feat for the team's wily Iraqi coach Adnan Hamad.

Could the same happen for Lebanon? The boys from Beirut were expected to come last in Group B, a feeling that was confirmed by a 6-0 thrashing in South Korea in the opening round. Since then, though, the Cedars have defeated UAE and came within two minutes of doing the same to Kuwait on Tuesday, before having to settle for a 2-2 draw. Kuwait are still in second behind Korea but will be relieved to have come away with a point to stay a point clear of Theo Bucker's men.

North Korea have recent World Cup experience but the Chollima are struggling this time around. A last-minute defeat in Japan may have been hard to take but losing 1-0 in Pyongyang to rivals for second spot Uzbekistan was a bitter blow. North Korea struggled to make chances against the Central Asians and are now four points off the pace at the halfway stage. The fact that the goal came from Alexander Geynrikh, a striker whose wages are paid by the epitome of South Korean capitalism Samsung, who own Suwon Bluewings, won't have made anyone feel better. Only a win in Taskhent next month will do.

Japan strolled to an 8-0 win over Tajikistan in Osaka and probably should have scored more against a team that only made this stage as Syria were disqualified for fielding an ineligible player. The Central Asians had cause to regret that administrative oversight last night as the continental champions ran riot.

So did Iran, but their 6-0 thrashing of Bahrain was more of a surprise. There is no love lost between the two nations on any level, including football and the fans in Tehran's Azadi Stadium had a great 90 minutes. Bahrain, who went so close to qualifying for the 2006 and 2010 World Cups, were expected to be Iran's main challengers for second but were blown away by Carlos Queiroz's men.

Now Bahrain are in third behind Qatar, who won a thrilling match in Indonesia 3-2. That means it is virtually all over for the South-East Asians.

Not for others, there is still much football to be played but for a few strugglers and underachievers, it is time to get results.

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