For Saudi Arabia, North Korea and Iran, results in Riyadh and Seoul today could mean the difference between playing in the World Cup or watching it from a distance. Saudi Arabia host North Korea in the last round of Asian qualifying in a match where the winner can secure the last of four automatic Asian spots at South Africa 2010.
But a draw in the Saudi capital and an upset win for Iran in South Korea could give the Iranians the last direct entry. With 15 points, South Korea are already assured of a place at the finals and first place in qualifying Group Two, leaving three countries vying for second and third places. The third-placed teams in each of the Asian qualifying groups will play off for the right to meet Oceania confederation champion New Zealand for a spot at next year's World Cup. Australia and Japan, who have already qualified, will resume a burgeoning regional rivalry in what would otherwise be a meaningless Group One match for both teams.
In that group, Bahrain's loss to Australia last week means they have to avoid defeat against Uzbekistan to secure third place. Uzbekistan are out of contention unless they win. Most attention will be on Group Two, where North Korea and Saudi Arabia (each with 11 points) and Iran (10 points) remain in contention in a tight bunch. A win for the Saudis would give them their fifth successive World Cup appearance, while North Korea are aiming for their first finals since reaching the quarterifinals on their debut in 1966.
A draw in Riyadh coupled with a win for Iran would help the Gulf team into its fourth world Cup and drag North Korea into third place, on goals difference ahead of the Saudis. A crowd of more than 70,000 fans at the Melbourne Cricket Ground is expected to watch the match between Australia and Japan which will determine who finishes atop Group One. The hosts lead the group with 17 points, two clear of Japan, and haven't conceded a goal in seven matches in this round.
The two teams have managed to build a significant rivalry in a short space of time, fuelled by Australia's 3-1 win in the first round at Germany 2006 that effectively ended Japan's World Cup campaign in the last tournament. Japan beat Australia in a penalty shootout at the Asian Cup quarter-finals the following year. Australia, who were the last team to book a spot for the 2006 World Cup, will be free of the usual anxiety they carry at this stage of the qualifying process, having joined the Asian confederation from Oceania after the 2006 World Cup to avoid the prospect of another one-off, winner-take-all qualifying match against an Asian or South American team.
Both Australia and Japan have scored 10 goals in qualifying but played out a scoreless draw at Tokyo in February. The Socceroos will be without former Liverpool winger Harry Kewell, who has been rested and Chris Coyne. * With agencies