World Cup 2014: Asian contenders

Posted by John Duerden

It is all over, apart from the playoffs. Asia's quartet of automatic qualifiers are now dusting themselves down after two years journeying along the road to Brazil and can now focus on the 2014 World Cup.

There were twists and turns along the way and three of the four had to wait until the final whistle of the final game in the final round of qualification. ESPN takes a look back at the trek to South America and at what needs to be done over the next few months.

South Korea

Son Heung-min celebrates after scoring the winner for South Korea against Qatar
GettyImagesSon Heung-min is an explosive talent for South Korea

Road to Brazil: Stressful. If, after hiring Apollo Creed to give him the speed to beat Clubber Lang in Rocky III, the Italian Stallion actually became slower, he would have been a little miffed. Korean fans felt the same under Choi Kang-hee. A conqueror of Asia at club level, Choi took the job in December 2012 for 18 months of predictable tactics and wildly unpredictable team selections. In the end, losing to Iran at home and crawling over the finish line thanks to a goal difference advantage of just one, summed up the campaign.

Reasons to be cheerful: There is talent. The team that won the bronze medal at the London Olympics could be built on and developed. The likes of Ki Sung-yeung, Lee Chung-yong and Koo Ja-cheol are experienced internationals and European performers but will still only be 25 after Brazil. Then there's the explosive Son Heung-min.

Issues to be solved: The team currently does not have a coach. There are plenty of options but nobody is in place yet. Korea's Achilles' heel has been their defence and has been for a number of years. The team's inability to defend set-pieces has become an increasing source of exasperation for fans and journalists alike.

Star Performer: Ki Sung-yeung. Difficult to pick one standout player for Korea due to injuries, instability and inconsistency. But the Swansea City midfielder was, until he too was injured, usually solid for the Taeguk Warriors. His passing helped unlock defences all around Asia and his set-pieces were always a danger.

Japan

Road to Brazil: Textbook. A strong start meant that quick qualification was always on while pressure was not, enabling coach Alberto Zaccheroni to look to the longer-term. Japan scored goals, didn't let many in and picked up plenty of points on the road, not always an easy thing to do in Asia, and that gave the team the distinction of becoming the first qualifier for the third World Cup in a row. The Samurai Blue ended the journey fresh and confident and ready for the challenges ahead.

Reasons to be cheerful: Japan are a settled team that keeps, moves and uses the ball well. As far as technique goes, there are not many better around the world. Keisuke Honda and Shinji Kagawa can be an absolute delight to watch when they combine and an absolute nightmare to defend against.

Issues to be solved: A goalscorer would go down very well, but then this is not something that Japan has traditionally had. Ryoichi Maeda doesn't do the business. These days, goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima is also struggling a little and Japan do not look as good at the back as they do going forward.

Star performer: Keisuke Honda. The man who makes Japan tick in an attacking sense dominates the central area and is everywhere, pushing, probing and scoring. He finished as the top scorer in the final round but there's much more to his game than goals.

Australia

Tim Cahill has been influential in driving Australia towards World Cup qualification
GettyImagesTim Cahill has been influential in driving Australia towards World Cup qualification

Road to Brazil: Bumpy. The Socceroos ended well but that masks the fact that for much of the final round, the team was poor. At half-time in game five, Australia were losing at home to Oman and would have been looking at third place. But they fought back, and impressed against Japan, Jordan and Iraq.

Reasons to be cheerful: Despite criticisms, the old guard can still dig deep when they need to and the introduction of younger talent such as Robbie Kruse and Tommy Oar, as well as those bubbling under like Tom Rogic, bodes well for the future.

Issues to be solved: Like Japan and most of Asia, Australia would love a genuine goalscorer. The team's left side is also in need of attention. Matt McKay is not a left-back and Oar lacks control. In the longer term, Australia need to think about replacing the veterans but this is not going to be high on Osieck's agenda.

Star Performer: Tim Cahill - When his team needed him, he was there. If it wasn't for the ex-Everton man, Australia would be preparing for the play-offs, at best. It was Cahill who equalised away at the Qatari 'home' of Iraq to set the scene for a dramatic and crucial win. And with Oman winning 2-0 in Sydney, it was Cahill who dragged his team back into the game to earn a priceless point.

Iran

Road to Brazil: Uncertain. Iran never really gave the impression they were confident of qualifying but were never far from the front of the race either. It was often a case of two steps forward and then one back. How else to describe losing to Lebanon for the first time and crashing at home to Uzbekistan? A real battling performance gave Team Melli a much-needed three points against South Korea in Tehran, then came a clever win in Qatar and that already famous last game smash-and-grab victory in Ulsan.

Reasons to be cheerful: Iran are solid at the back, conceding just twice in eight games in the final round. Under Carlos Queiroz, the team is disciplined and organised -- there will be no thrashings handed out in Brazil. He also has exciting forwards such as Reza Ghoochannejhad, who plays for Standard Liege in Belgium and Askhan Dejagah of Fulham who are still settling into the international set-up. Javad Nekounam is still going strong at 32.

Issues to be solved: Iran became adept at snatching results but rarely took control and dominated a game against decent opposition. In the final round, eight goals were scored in eight games, four of which came against already-eliminated Lebanon in Tehran. In short, the team needs more goal power.

Star Performer: Reza Ghoochannejhad. Had always impressed in Belgium but his call-up was complicated by visa issues. Once 'Gucci' made his debut against South Korea in October, he made a difference. His first two games were impressive, though he didn't get on the scoresheet, but he found the target in each of the vital last three games, two of which were the only goals away from home.

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