Aussies on brink of sealing South Africa spot

BANGKOK - Old rivalries on and off the field will reignite on Wednesday when qualification for the 2010 World Cup reaches its most critical stage in Asia. In Group 1, a win for Australia against Uzbekistan and a draw between fierce rivals Bahrain and Qatar will send the Socceroos through to South Africa with two games remaining, but it is the battle for playoff berths that is providing the most intrigue. Japan lead on 11 points and look almost certain to advance automatically with Australia, leaving Bahrain, Qatar and Uzbekistan -- all level on four points -- gearing up for a thrilling dogfight for third place and a playoff spot. Defeat for any of them this week will likely signal an end to their chances of reaching their first World Cup finals, and with a few scores to settle, much is at stake. Uzbekistan are still reeling from their acrimonious defeat to Bahrain in a playoff for the 2006 finals, a match originally won by the Uzbeks but replayed due to bad refereeing. Off the field, a Qatari and a Bahraini will go head to head in May in a FIFA executive committee election that has triggered an ugly power struggle in Asian soccer and fuelled tensions between the two countries. Bahrain will be the favourites to win in Manama given Qatar's dire form -- three successive defeats with no goals scored -- but coach Bruno Metsu is refusing to throw in the towel. ALL EVEN "This happens in football," he said of Qatar's run of defeats. "But Uzbekistan, Bahrain and Qatar all have the same number of points and all of them are at the same level." Qatar's disorganised defence leaked four goals on Saturday to a rampant Uzbekistan, who could have the wind taken out of their sails by an Australian team on the brink of qualification. Australia, however, are not getting ahead of themselves and are aware an Uzbek side handed a World Cup lifeline and brimming with confidence could spoil their party. "Going by the (4-0) result, Uzbekistan are a heavyweight team," said Socceroos defender Jade North. "They're going to come here and give it to us so we've got to be prepared for that." Political foes North and South Korea go head to head in a battle for top spot in Group 2 and the prospect of both reaching the finals together for the first time is becoming increasingly likely. North Korea outplayed UAE to win 2-0 on Saturday and move top on 10 points, although South Korea, who have eight points and have played one less game, can wrestle back that lead with a win in Seoul. UAE's hopes of qualification look to have evaporated but for the sake of pride, they can derail the comeback of Gulf rivals Saudi Arabia, who stunned Iran 2-1 with two last-gasp goals on Saturday to revive their campaign and move third on seven points. "Iran are a great team but we managed to win in a very special way," Saudi Arabia coach Jose Peseiro said. "Both Iran and Saudi still have a chance to qualify so we need to concentrate on the games coming up."