Oman face Japan, while Lebanon play Qatar with both looking to set the tone for future in the World Cup Asian qualifying matches.
Ali Al Habsi will aim to stall Keisuke Honda and Japan
TOKYO // Ali Al Habsi, the first player from the Gulf to play in the English Premier League, will have to be at his best today when Oman take on Japan in the last full round of Asian Qualifying for the World Cup.
The Wigan Athletic goalkeeper will be the last line of defence for Oman and will be tasked with thwarting two of the 12 European-based players in Japan's squad at Saitama Stadium.
"We are ready," Al Habsi said. "We know that it is going to be tough, but we will fight. We hope to have a good score against Japan in the opening match."
Oman's qualification was in doubt until the end of the previous round when they edged group rivals Saudi Arabia and Thailand. Paul Le Guen's squad has displayed contrasting home and away form, crashing to heavy defeats on the road to Thailand and Australia, yet defeating the same two opponents in Muscat.
Oman's preparations, however, have been hampered by injuries to key defender Hussain Mudhaffar and striker Hassan Rabee'a. Both have been ruled out for the first three games of the five-team group.
They face a Japan side boasting the likes of Shinji Kagawa and Keisuke Honda, who will be looking to transform their impressive club form on to the international stage.
Kagawa was in peak form in the second half of the German Bundesliga season while helping Borussia Dortmund to the club's first domestic league and cup double.
The 23 year old scored the first goal in Japan's 2-0 win over Azerbaijan in an international friendly last week and has been watched by Sir Alex Ferguson, the manager of Manchester United.
Honda's career was interrupted by a knee injury last year, but the 25-year-old CSKA Moscow midfielder will be aiming to re-establish his role as one of the leader's of the team after being out of the spotlight for so long.
Today's other Group B clash involves Jordan hosting Iraq at Amman International Stadium. Japan and Australia are strong favourites to advance from Group B.
In Group A, where South Korea and Iran are the favourites to progress to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, Qatar play Lebanon at Beirut's Sports City Stadium. Qatar will hope to fair better than the UAE did in their last trip to Lebanon. They lost 3-1 to Theo Buecker's side in September, a defeat that cost Srecko Katanec his job.
Paolo Autuori, Qatar's Brazilian coach, says his team must stay optimistic even if they are not among the favourites to advance.
"Obviously, South Korea and Iran are the favourites from our group," Autuori said. "But that doesn't mean that they are unbeatable."
Buecker, Lebanon's German coach, has recalled Zakaria Charara and Mohammed Ghaddar. Ghaddar scored the first goal in the 3-1 defeat of UAE in Beirut, a result that set them on their way to finishing in second place in the group.
Charara, 26, has been impressing in the Malaysian league and will be looking to make a major contribution in today's group opener.
"The opening game against Qatar is well within our reach," Ghaddar said. "Everything has been going great up until now and we need to take three points and set the tone for what lies ahead."
Uzbekistan are seeking qualification for football's global showpiece for the first time and they host Iran today in Tashkent, the scene of the UAE Olympic team's triumph back in March.
"We are clear that there will be more difficult games in the final stage as the teams we are facing are stronger," Vadim Abramov, the Uzbek coach, told Fifa.com.
"But we have shown that we are capable of competing against any rivals so we are confident that we can go to Brazil 2014."
Iraq, who have legendary Brazilian Zico as their national team coach, are aiming to qualify for the World Cup for the first time since 1986.
Defender Bassim Abbas knows that winning the first two matches is crucial to his side's chances of qualifying.
"The players believe the first and second matches, against Jordan and Oman respectively, are fundamental to our hopes of qualifying," he said.
"We absolutely must take the six points that are up for grabs."
South Korea, semi-finalists at the 2002 World Cup, will resume their qualifying campaign on Friday with an away match in Qatar.
The teams finishing third in each group will go into a play-off, with the winner getting another shot at a place in Brazil via an intercontinental qualifier.
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