Asia’s 10 World Cup hopefuls enter into a decisive period of 12 matches in 15 days with Australia attempting to rescue a sketchy campaign while Uzbekistan and Jordan try to secure first appearances at the finals.
With only four places guaranteed from the two groups, avoiding defeat has been the mantra for most of the evenly-matched teams in the Asian qualifying picture, leading to a tangled situation ahead of the concluding matches in June.
Japan are one of the few sides that have played with some attacking verve which has left them on the verge of becoming the first side to qualify for Brazil ahead of their penultimate match in Group B at home to Australia on Tuesday.
The Asian champions, however, blew the opportunity to qualify in March after they slumped to a shock first defeat of the campaign in Jordan when all they needed was a draw.
That result was followed by a disappointing loss to Bulgaria in a friendly match in Toyota on Friday as the nerves set in ahead of the repeat of the 2011 Asia Cup final against the Socceroos.
“Given the result we had before (Jordan), it would’ve been nice to win with a good performance behind us so we can go into June 4 feeling good about ourselves, but that’s not going to happen anymore,” captain Makoto Hasebe, who scored an own goal in the loss, told Japanese media.
But the Blue Samurai could still qualify on Tuesday even in defeat, providing Iraq do not win away to Oman in the day’s other Group B match.
That luxury, though, is not extended to Australia, whose sluggish tempo and lack of goals have resulted in a shortage of points and given qualifying hope to the three West Asian sides in the group.
Japan lead the way on 13 from six matches, Jordan are second on seven from six, Australia next with six from five, followed by Oman on six from six and Iraq in last with five from five.
“It’s a dangerous situation,” under-fire Australia coach Holger Osieck told Japanese media about the qualifying picture.
After the tricky away fixture, Australia host Jordan (June 11) and then Iraq (June 18), allowing them to control their own destiny despite their earlier wobbles.
Iraq, Asian champions in 2007, host Japan on (June 11) with Vladimir Petrovic now in charge after the Serb replaced former Brazilian great Zico in March. Jordan end their campaign on June 18 at home to Oman.
The team that finishes third in the group will still be in with a chance of qualifying for the World Cup but they will have to come through a two-legged playoff against the equivalent finisher in Group A before a similar tie against the fifth-placed team in South America.
Three 1-0 wins in a row have taken Uzbekistan to the top of Group A ahead of their final two matches away to South Korea (June 11) and at home to Qatar (June 18) but a first World Cup appearance still remains up in the air.
The Uzbeks have 11 points from six matches, South Korea 10 from five, followed by Iran on seven from five, Qatar on seven from six with Lebanon last on four from six.
A win for the Koreans away to Lebanon on Tuesday would give them breathing space before they face the Uzbeks and then Iran in their final two matches at home, but they have found the going much harder this time despite their talent-laden squad.
Korea, the Asian side with the most World Cup finals appearances (eight), needed a late 96th minute goal to beat Qatar at home in March while they slumped to a shock defeat in Lebanon in an earlier round.
Carlos Queiroz’s Iran side, who have managed just two goals in five matches, also play three times in June with Tuesday’s crunch match away to Qatar followed by a home tie with Lebanon before they head to Korea.
“At this moment everybody in the group can be in (automatic qualification) and everybody can be out,” the Portuguese told Iranian media.