Japan, South Korea, Australia... who is Asia's No.1?

Singapore face the might of Japan in a World Cup qualifier on Thursday night. But where do the Samurai Blue currently sit in Asian football's pecking order? John Duerden explores the options...

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It’s October, 2014 at the Sports Hub in Singapore and Japan coach Javier Aguirre expresses his belief the upcoming game against Brazil is a perfect opportunity to start his 'street-smart' policy.

The tough-talking Mexican believed that the talented Samurai Blue were a little too nice and naive on the pitch, as had been demonstrated during that June's World Cup.

The boss felt that Brazil had plenty to teach in this regard. Perhaps that was true off the pitch too as, before the game, the Tokyo press pack, sweating in the afternoon sun, waited patiently outside the media entrance for the gate to open.

By the time they were admitted they found Brazilian pressman had been sitting coolly inside for hours and not only that, had eaten much of the food. Aguirre would have approved.

It ended 4-0 to Brazil, a scoreline that flattered the Asians more than the South Americans. After the game, Aguirre could do little more than shake his head in a dark press conference room.

It was more evidence that Japan had some way to go to challenge the best. Exiting the 2015 Asian Cup in January at the quarter-final stage also wasn’t in the script.

Aguirre was on his way in February, replaced by Vahid Halilhodzic.

There were some mutterings about his appointment and the Bosnian started in less-than-impressive fashion as Japan suffered a shock goalless draw against Singapore in June and then a last-place finish at the 2015 East Asian Cup in August.

For the new man, beating Singapore on Thursday at the Sports Hub is important for more reasons than the three points it would bring.

Singapore have 10 points so far and three more on Thursday will put the Lions on top of Group E. That would be quite a shock even after the draw in Japan, where goalkeeper Izwan Mahbud had a night that both sets of players will not forget.

Though the hosts will be set for more desperate defending, the visitors will be determined not to slip up again.

Brazil's hammering of Japan 12 months ago was a worrying sign

Keisuke Honda, Shinji Kagawa, Shinji Okazaki and a whole host of other talented stars are ready. It is a formidable line-up.

Singapore coach Bernd Stange says he is curious how his players will deal with the threat.

"You have to defend. Japan want revenge for sure. They want to prove that it was an accident. And we have to prove that we can make another sensation.”

It would be a sensation, yet if it helps confidence at all, Singapore aren’t facing the No.1 team in Asia.

Japan have slipped from that perch.

The poor World Cup followed by a mediocre Asian Cup and other performances mean that while the Samurai Blue are still there or thereabouts, when it comes to the right here and right now, they have lost their top spot.

Winning in Singapore won't be enough to take it back.

Officially there are two other teams more deserving of the label. Iran are top of the greasy pole according to FIFA.

Even the most passionate of the many Iranian fans would not – well, probably – claim they are currently the continent's best.

Australia have a greater claim. The Asian champions have had a good 18 months and were probably the best – certainly the most aggressive – of the Asian quartet at the 2014 World Cup despite being the only one that left Brazil with zero points.

Then came the Asian Cup win. A place in the final round of 2018 World Cup qualification should not be a problem, despite that defeat in Jordan in October – losing in Amman can happen to any Asian team.

There are some young players coming through and then there is the 2017 Confederations Cup. Coach Ange Postecoglou is building a solid foundation.

Australia's Asian Cup triumph in January was impressive

But at the moment, neither the top ranked team nor the continental champions are the best in Asia.

South Korea are No.2 according to FIFA and were the losing finalists in the Asian Cup final in January, but right now they are the region’s top team.

The World Cup went as badly for Korea as it did for Japan, an inexperienced team led by an inexperienced coach with everyone looking a little lost.

In came Uli Stielike. It was an underwhelming appointment. The Asian Cup, a tournament that the country just had no interest in after the failure in Brazil, started in underwhelming fashion with perfunctory wins over Oman and Kuwait.

But then came a battling victory over hosts Australia in Brisbane. Suddenly there was an injection of confidence and the team made it all the way to the final against the Socceroos.

A bit of luck and the trophy would have gone to Seoul and not Sydney.

Since then, there has been plenty of encouragement. A young team won the East Asian Cup and World Cup qualification has been absolutely perfect. Four matches, four wins, zero goals conceded.

Best of all for a side that has long struggled defensively, there have been just four goals conceded across 18 games in 2015.

Some of the tests could have been stronger yet there is a settled squad forming – still youthful, but with enough experience.

A case could be made for Borussia Dortmund's Park Joo-ho, Kim Yong-gwon of Guangzhou Evergrande, Swansea's Ki Sung-yeung and Son Heung-min of Spurs being the best in Asia in their respective positions. There is plenty of other talent bursting through too.

No team is without weakness. This team lacks a goalscorer, a defensive midfielder and a top-class goalkeeper – but even here there are small signs of encouragement – and there is a feeling Stielike can be a little too loyal to the regulars.

But overall, there is plenty to be happy about.

There isn’t much between the top teams in Asia, but over the past few months, South Korea have just edged in front.

There are tougher tests ahead and this is exactly what the team needs.

Singapore face a strong Japan team this week, but if it is any consolation, it is not the best the continent has to offer.

Son Heung-Min is South Korea's headline act