Tough, hot start for favourites Australia
Heavily favoured Australia head to an unhappy hunting ground to take on lowly Oman as they begin what they hope will be their final round of World Cup qualifiers with a win next week.
The Socceroos fell to a surprise 1-0 defeat in Muscat in the third round of qualifiers in November, but recovered to easily top their group and advance to the 10-team fourth round featuring two groups and four guaranteed places in Brazil.
The Australians have been drawn in the tougher looking Group B alongside next Friday's opponents, Asian champions Japan, Iraq and Jordan. Group A features Iran, South Korea, Uzbekistan, Qatar and Lebanon.
Oman advanced to the fourth round as runners-up in the group behind Australia at the expense of three-times Asian champions Saudi Arabia and former Iran coach Afshin Ghotbi believes the Gulf side have a chance to surprise again.
"Oman are the dark horses of the group. Expect a hard-working, defensively organised and dangerous counter-attacking team. They will be difficult to beat in Muscat, especially in the summer months," Ghotbi, speaking to the Kyodo news agency, predicted.
The timing of the match, as Ghotbi alluded to, had already irked Australia coach Holger Osieck, who slammed FIFA for fixing the kick-off for 5pm local time, where temperatures regularly soar above 40 degrees Celsius.
Prior to the Australia task, Oman will open their Group B campaign with a difficult trip to Saitama to take on Japan on Sunday.
Japan have struggled in recent matches, falling to 1-0 defeats in their final third round matches against North Korea and Uzbekistan but led by the creativity of attacking midfielder Shinji Kagawa, they should be strong enough to claim a qualifying berth.
Iraq, coached by former Japan boss Zico, are best placed of the three other sides hoping to break Australia and Japan's expected stranglehold of the qualifying places.
"Our Group B has many strong teams. But I am not afraid of them and we can get victories against them, even Japan we can win against them," Zico said after the draw was made earlier this year.
The 2007 Asian champions will, however, have to contend with playing home matches in nearby Qatar after FIFA deemed playing in the war-torn country was too dangerous.
In Group A, South Korea and Iran will be favourites to advance despite recent problems.
The normally slick Koreans, who have played in seven consecutive World Cups, suffered an embarrassing 2-1 loss to Lebanon in the third round which led to a change of coach.
Their leading striker Park Chu-young has not been selected for the opening fourth round matches away to Qatar on Friday and at home to Lebanon (June 12) after a season of inactivity at Premier League side Arsenal.
For Iran, defeat to Albania in a friendly on Sunday once again exposed the team's defensive frailties and a lack of squad depth is a concern, but they remain likely to reach Brazil.
They begin their campaign on Sunday away to Uzbekistan, who are also likely to challenge for one of the two automatic qualifying berths but will be hamstrung by the loss of five players for the match in Tashkent through suspension.
FIFA sidelined the quintet after they were found guilty of deliberately gaining yellow cards in the previous stage to avoid carrying over bans into the fourth round.
The third-place finishers from each group will compete in a two-legged playoff, with the winner taking on the fifth-placed team in South American qualifying for a finals berth.