China's 2014 World Cup hopes teeter on the brink as they prepare to face Iraq on Friday, while other Asian football powers can breeze into the last qualifying round with room to spare.
Jose Antonio Camacho's men are struggling after one win in three games has left them third in Group A and three points behind second-placed Iraq, with only the top two teams qualifying for the next stage.
Camacho arrived in August with a remit to take China to only their second World Cup, after a winless showing in 2002, but halfway through the six-match round and he has already expressed misgivings.
"Chinese players are prone to choking in big moments," the ex-Real Madrid coach said, according to state media. "I should help them toughen their nerves."
And a leaked report said Camacho had "overrated" China's players, who at least have the comfort of playing in Doha after security fears forced all Iraq's fixtures abroad.
"Camacho admitted in his report to the Chinese Football Association (CFA) that he overrated Chinese players' physical and technical abilities," a CFA source told Xinhua news agency.
Australia look set to maintain their 100 percent record in Group D when they take on Oman, and the expected away victory would seal their progression with two games left.
Star men Harry Kewell and Brett Emerton return to the squad for the trip to Muscat after missing last month's home leg.
"We're almost there, but we're not there yet," said attacker Brett Holman. "We'll go out, and I think everybody expresses the same feeling, that we're going to go out every game that we play and try and go for the win.
"That's the type of team we are."
Japan have been training in Doha, scene of their Asian Cup triumph in January, before their trip to Dushanbe, where they will have few worries after hammering Tajikistan 8-0 last time around.
Another win against the Tajiks would put the Blue Samurai through, unless North Korea can maintain their faint hopes of reaching consecutive World Cups by claiming at least a point in Uzbekistan.
"I'm not a person who looks at the past," their Italian coach Alberto Zaccheroni said, according to Kyodo news agency. "I always look forward to what is to come.
"My main objective was never to win the Asian Cup. The objective all long has been to qualify for the 2014 World Cup."
South Korea, semi-finalists in 2002, look set to keep their stranglehold on Group B when they play United Arab Emirates, while Iran will hope for a re-run of last month's 6-0 stroll against Bahrain as they head to Manama.
Jordan are on maximum points in Group A and could be qualified after their home game against bottom-placed Singapore, as long as China fail to beat Iraq.
An away win against Saudi Arabia would prime surprise package Thailand to go through along with Australia in Group D, while Qatar can cement Group E's second spot when they host Indonesia.
The winners and runners-up of the five groups will be drawn into two pools for the round-robin fourth stage, with the eventual top two in each section earning a ticket to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.
The two third-placed teams will then face each other for the right to contest an intercontinental play-off.