Kagawa's Japan eye next World Cup
Manchester United target Shinji Kagawa can seize another chance to impress Alex Ferguson by helping Asian champions Japan take a big step towards the next World Cup, starting this weekend.
The fourth round of Asia's 2014 World Cup qualifiers will get underway on Sunday with Alberto Zaccheroni's side facing three matches in nine days as they look to book their spot in Brazil.
Japan host Oman in their opening Group B match at the Saitama Stadium and face Jordan at the same venue next Friday, before travelling to Brisbane for a June 12 re-match of last year's Asian Cup final with Australia.
While it is a daunting start for his team, Zaccheroni has a strong squad at his disposal that includes Borussia Dortmund winger Kagawa and CSKA Moscow attacking midfielder Keisuke Honda.
Kagawa has been making the headlines with his impending move to Manchester United, but it is the return from injury of the influential Honda that has bolstered Japanese hopes.
The star of Japan's run to the last 16 at the 2010 World Cup, and the most valuable player in their 2011 Asian Cup victory, Honda missed the entire third round of World Cup qualifiers after he injured his right knee last August.
However, he returned for the Blue Samurai in an international friendly against Azerbaijan last week and set up goals for Kagawa and Shinji Okazaki in a 2-0 victory.
"I think once I get used to linking up with the rest of the team I can be a lot more dangerous for our opponents," said the 25-year-old after the Azerbaijan match.
"I think we will have more chances in the World Cup qualifiers if I have more intensity. Our opponents are also bound to make mistakes."
Japan, who have contested the last four World Cups, are one of the 10 Asian teams left who are battling for four-and-half spots at the 2014 tournament in Brazil.
The teams have been divided into two groups of five with the top two in each section qualifying for Brazil. The two third-placed sides go into a two-legged play-off for the right to face a South American team for a ticket to Brazil.
With Australia enjoying a bye this weekend, Sunday's other Group B game is in Amman where Jordan entertain 2007 Asian Cup champions Iraq.
It will be the third meeting between the Middle Eastern neighbours in the past 10 months after they were also grouped together in the third round.
The Jordanians won 2-0 in Arbil last September but the Iraqis, coached by Brazilian legend Zico, avenged that loss with a 3-1 victory in Amman in November as both teams reached the fourth round at the expense of China.
In Group A, central Asian giants Uzbekistan will resume their quest for a first ever appearance at the World Cup when they entertain three-time finalists Iran in Tashkent.
The Uzbeks are making their fifth consecutive appearance in the final round of Asian qualifying, but have never gone further than the play-offs in 2006.
Vadim Abramov's side impressed during the third round when they topped a group that included Japan and 2010 finalists North Korea.
But they will be without skipper Server Djeparov and four other players who were slapped with extra one-match bans for deliberately picking up yellow cards for time-wasting in their penultimate third-round game against Tajikistan.
The extra yellows meant the players were able to serve their automatic bans for two cautions in their meaningless final third-round fixture, against Japan.
Under former Portugal coach Carlos Queiroz, Iran are aiming for their first World Cup appearance since 2006, led by veterans Javad Nekounam and Ali Karimi.
Team Melli are sweating on the fitness of Wolfsburg midfielder Ashkan Dejagah, who has a thigh injury. The ex-Germany youth international made his debut for Iran in February and scored two goals in a 2-2 draw with Qatar.
The Qataris will also be in action on Sunday when they visit Beirut to face surprise package Lebanon, who are making their first appearance in the final round of qualifying.
South Korea, who reached the 2002 semi-finals as co-hosts, are aiming for an eighth consecutive World Cup appearance and they will begin their Group A campaign in Qatar next Friday.
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