Japan & Australia eye early qualification

BANGKOK - Japan and Australia get the chance on Saturday to become the first countries to reach next year's World Cup but must overcome teams both needing wins to keep alive their hopes of a first finals appearance. Japan will be the first through to South Africa if they beat Uzbekistan in Tashkent, although the resurgent Uzbeks are sure to put up a fight with a playoff spot still up for grabs.

"We have a good team, great players and I don't think we're weaker than Japan," said Asian player of the year, Server Djeparov, whose team are fourth in Group 1 on four points.

"We've waited a long time to play in the World Cup and now is the time to end this wait."

Japan coach Takeshi Okada, whose team sit second with 11 points and three games left, knows qualification on Saturday will require a first-class performance against a high-scoring team that has just rediscovered its form.

"We need to refresh our minds for the Uzbekistan game and come home with a win," Okada told reporters. "I know my team so no secrets, no surprises. It won't be easy but we are ready."

Australia, unbeaten in the final round, will advance to their third finals with a point away to Qatar, who are tied with the Uzbeks but are a formidable force at home in Doha.

The Socceroos are top with 13 points from five games and are at full strength ahead of what is almost certain to be their first finals via the Asian route.

SUBSTANCE OVER STYLE

Tim Cahill defended criticism about Australia's tactics and playing style in the campaign so far and said points, not pretty play, were all that mattered.

"We've had a lot of stick over these qualifying rounds and how we've performed but sometimes it's about getting the job done," said the Everton midfielder.

"If we play a solid defence and get a scrappy goal, we'll take that now."

Group 2 leaders South Korea travel to Dubai to play already-eliminated United Arab Emirates and are bolstered by the inclusion of seven Europe-based players in their squad.

The 2002 World Cup semi-finalists have 11 points, one ahead of rivals North Korea, who are home to an Iranian team needing three points to stay in contention for third place and a playoff spot.

"We've come here to qualify for the finals, we need to do that as fast as possible and I expect us to win," said Manchester United midfielder Park Ji-sung, who last week became the first Asian to play in a Champions League final.

Iran, fourth on six points, have been in turmoil throughout the last two rounds, mostly due to off-the-field spats and power struggles, but new coach Afshin Ghotbi still believes their passage to their fourth finals is certain.

"The Iran team is oozing quality from every pore," he told the FIFA website (www.fifa.com) on Wednesday.

Ghotbi is Iran's third coach since their 2-1 home loss to Saudi Arabia on March 28 -- the only defeat of their 10 qualifiers so far.

"We have the strengths to play any team in Asia and win," he added. "If we keep playing well we can achieve our goal."

The top two in each group will qualify automatically for South Africa, with the two third-placed sides going head-to-head for the chance to take on Oceania champions New Zealand in a playoff for a place in the 32-team finals.