Asian qualifiers: Saudis eyes finals place

September 4, 2008

BANGKOK, Sept 4 (Reuters) - The battle for the handful of Asian places at the 2010 World Cup resumes on Saturday with a familiar feel to what promises to be a tense final round.

Whether they cruised or bundled through to the last stage, Asia's World Cup regulars each start round four with a clean slate and a realistic chance of grabbing one of four automatic berths at South Africa 2010.

The match between four-times qualifiers Saudi Arabia and heavyweights Iran is the pick of Saturday's opening matches, while in-form Uzbekistan face Qatar, whose place in the competition could still be in doubt after they fielded an ineligible player earlier this year.

Bahrain, the Gulf's top team in the last two rounds, are home to a resurgent Japanese side which has performed miserably in the Middle East so far, including a 1-0 defeat against the Bahrainis.

Japan coach Takeshi Okada was critical of his team's sluggish form in the last round and wants all three points from a tricky match on Saturday to turn things around.

'If we overcome this, our team can step up further,' Okada said. 'We want to take the first match no matter what.'

With a whopping 26 goals in their first seven qualifiers, Uzbekistan are Asia's form team, making amends for their acrimonious exit from qualifying for the 2006 finals in Germany.

The Uzbeks were just a game away from their first World Cup when they were made to replay a match they had won, which FIFA said was fraught with refereeing errors.

They could have another replay on their hands if the Court of Arbitration for Sport rule that Qatar's fielding of naturalised Brazilian Emerson breached competition rules.

The high-scoring Saudis breezed through to the final round and are looking for a few early Group B wins to book an early place at their fifth-successive World Cup.

Iran coach Ali Daei, however, has warned not to underestimate his team, which rebounded from a year of misfiring and shoddy play to win their group in the last round.

'Saudi Arabia is our traditional opponent, with good players and team composition, but we have prepared ourselves well for this encounter,' Daei told reporters.

'These players are the best in Iranian football, they are highly motivated, ambitious.'

Having squeezed through to the last 10 by just a single goal, United Arab Emirates hope for a more solid campaign this time and open their account against surprise qualifiers North Korea.

South Korea, aiming to reach their seventh successive World Cup, start their campaign against their northern neighbours on Wednesday, while Asia newcomers Australia face Uzbekistan.

The top two teams in the two groups earn World Cup spots., while the third-placed sides playoff for a chance to take on the Oceania champions for a place at the 32-team finals.