Rampant Japan poised to seal World Cup berth
Asian champions Japan are poised to become the first country to join hosts Brazil at the 2014 World Cup when they take their unbeaten record in the final qualifying round to Jordan on Tuesday.
The tournament may still be 15 months away but Japan's blistering form in the Asian qualifiers has put them almost out of sight of their four Group B rivals and on the verge of a fifth consecutive World Cup appearance.
With four wins and a draw in their first five games, the Blue Samurai have an eight-point lead in their group and they will book their ticket to Brazil with another victory at the King Abdullah Stadium.
Even a draw might be enough if Tuesday's other Group B match between Australia and Oman in Sydney ends in a stalemate. Japan were also the first country to qualify for the 2010 World Cup, with hosts South Africa given the customary bye.
Japan trounced Jordan 6-0 at the Saitama Stadium last June but forward Keisuke Honda, who scored a hat-trick in that match and has recently been linked with English Premier League side Everton, was declared unfit by his Russian club CSKA Moscow.
Coach Alberto Zaccheroni will also be missing Inter Milan full-back Yuto Nagatomo, who has a knee injury.
But the Italian is confident in the strength of his squad, which includes Manchester United's Shinji Kagawa and Stuttgart forward Shinji Okazaki, who has scored four goals in Japan's last three games.
"Everyone knows how highly I value (Honda and Nagatomo) but it's not the first time we have been without them," Zaccheroni said. "The players who have replaced them have always done a good job."
Australia are currently second in Group B on goal difference after a 2-1 victory over Iraq last October, when goals in the final 10 minutes by Tim Cahill and Archie Thompson boosted their bid for a third consecutive World Cup appearance.
The top two in the group will automatically qualify for Brazil with the third-placed side earning a chance for an intercontinental play-off.
While the Socceroos have played a game less than Iraq and Oman, who are also on five points, and will be hosting three of their final four matches, veteran goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer knows his team cannot afford to drop points against Oman.
"Anything less than three points will be a disaster for us," said the 40-year-old, who played in the disappointing goalless draw between the two sides in Muscat last June.
"Now with the four remaining games, every one of them is obviously vitally important, particularly the three home games."
The battle for the two qualification berths from Group A is still very much open with Uzbekistan on eight points, just one ahead of South Korea, Iran and Qatar heading into Tuesday's games.
After managing only two points from their first three games, the Uzbeks have powered their way into first place after 1-0 away wins over Qatar and Iran.
However, the Central Asian side have been in poor form of late, drawing 0-0 at home against 10-man Hong Kong and losing 2-1 to the United Arab Emirates in recent Asian Cup 2014 qualifying matches.
Mirjalal Kasimov's charges will need to raise their game for the visit of unfancied Lebanon, who are bottom with four points but warmed up for the match with a stunning 5-2 victory over Thailand in Asian Cup qualifying on Friday.
The other Group A game will see South Korea host Qatar in chilly conditions at the Seoul World Cup Stadium as the former semi-finalists press their bid to qualify for an eighth consecutive World Cup.
After a bright start to the final round, in which they trounced Qatar 4-1 last June, Choi Kang-Hee's side have stumbled in their last two qualifiers, drawing 2-2 with Uzbekistan before going down 1-0 to 10-man Iran in Tehran.
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