Australia and Japan, two of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) powerhouses, can book their places in the finals of Asian Football Cup 2011 when 18 Asian nations battle it out on Wednesday in the penultimate round of the tournament’s five qualifying groups.
Hosts Qatar, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Korea Republic, India, Uzbekistan and Syria have already qualified for the 16-nation competition but at least another four nations can join them in Doha next January.
Three-times AFC Asian Cup winner Japan who play Yemen in Sana’a had considered not playing in the Gulf country because of the security situation, but Kyodo News Agency reported at the weekend that the AFC had carried out checks and contacted the Japan Football Association to give them the all-clear to make the trip as scheduled.
Japan only need a point to qualify, but have included 13 new Data HK faces with coach Takeshi Okada saying that his focus is on this year’s FIFA World Cup in South Africa.
Underdogs Yemen go into the match after a confidence-denting 1-0 defeat to Tajikistan on Saturday in Sana’a.
Bahrain, who share top spot with the Japanese in Group A, play Hong Kong at home and a win would also them through to the finals.
Australia, the AFC’s top-ranked nation, play in Kuwait on the same day, but, like Japan, will be fielding an under-strength side without most of their European-based players. Regular midfielder Jason Culina has also pulled out after injuring his knee in a local Australia A League match.
Both Kuwait and Australia lead Group B and either side can go through to the finals with a win. Kuwait will be buoyed by their 1-0 defeat in the Australian capital Canberra last March.
Other nations involved in friendly matches in preparation for Wednesday’s round have had mixed fortunes.
Singapore, involved in a four-way battle for qualification in Group E, drew 0-0 and lost 4-1 in two friendlies at home to Oman in the last week, and will come up against an Iranian team buoyed by a 1-0 defeat of the Democratic Republic of Korea (North Korea) in the Four-Nation Friendly Tournament in Doha on Saturday.
Jordan, who shocked Iran 1-0 last November to stay in contention for qualification from Group E, must be happy with their preparation for their match against Thailand, coming back from two goals down against China in Shandong to earn a creditable draw.
Jordan bring up the rear in Group E with four points from four matches but a win against Thailand, who are third on five points, could take the fight for two top spots to the last round on 3 March.
China, who are second in Group D with nine points, have a crunch game in Zhejiang against leaders Syria, who have already qualified with 10 points, and will almost certainly qualify if they win.
The United Arab Emirates look set to join Uzbekistan from Group C and should wrap up their place with a win against winless Malaysia at the Al-Shahab stadium.
Malaysia go into the match with a shock 4-1 victory over Syria in a friendly in Kuala Lumpur but with three defeats in their group it would need a miracle to stay in contention. The Malaysians are still smarting from a 5-0 drubbing at home to the UAE in January last year.
06.01.10 – 16:15 YEMEN – JAPAN (A) Ali Mohsen Al-Muraisi Stadium
06.01.10 – 18:00 BAHRAIN – HONG KONG (A) National Stadium, Manama
06.01.10 – 17:30 KUWAIT – AUSTRALIA (B) Kuwait S.C. Stadium
06.01.10 – 19:30 INDONESIA – OMAN(B) Gelora Bung Karno Stadium
06.01.10 – 19:00 UAE – MALAYSIA(C) Al-Shabab Stadium
06.01.10 – 17:00 LEBANON – VIETNAM (D) Beirut Municipal Stadium
06.01.10 – 19:30 CHINA P.R. – SYRIA (D) Zhejiang Yellow Dragon Sports Center
06.01.10 – 18:30 THAILAND – JORDAN (E) Rajamangala Stadium
06.01.10 – 19:30 SINGAPORE – I.R.IRAN Bishan Stadium
17.01.10 – 19:00 VIETNAM – CHINA P.R. (D) My Dinh Stadium
The final round of matches will be played on 03.03.10.