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Asian teams start World Cup quest
(China Daily)
Updated: 2004-02-18 09:20

Asia sets out on the long road to the 2006 World Cup finals this week as qualifying for football's greatest showcase starts in earnest across the region.

Chinese national team players attend a training session. [newsphoto]

Thirty-two teams will take part in 16 games today, with big guns Japan, South Korea, Iran and Saudi Arabia all entering the fray following last year's preliminary round.

Teams have been split into eight groups of four, with the winners from each pool advancing to the crucial final phase of qualifying that will determine the four or possibly five Asian representatives at the next World Cup.

Though the heavyweights are expected to secure their place in the next phase with little difficulty, none are leaving anything to chance with most sides aiming to be at full-strength.

Asian champions Japan, who enjoyed their best ever appearance at a World Cup finals when they reached the last 16 on home soil in 2002, have recalled their Europe-based stars for their Group 3 opener with Oman.

Now coached by Brazilian legend Zico, the Japanese have indicated they have finally recovered from the hangover that followed their heroics during the finals two years ago.

They warmed up for today's game in Saitama by defeating Iraq 2-0 last week, and will be bolstered by the return of Hidetoshi Nakata from Italy, Fulham's Junichi Inamoto, and striker Naohiro Takahara from Hamburg.

India and Singapore make up what should be a straightforward group for the Japanese to negotiate.

Like Japan, South Korea are leaving nothing to chance as they kick off Group 7 against Lebanon today, with Viet Nam playing the Maldives in the pool's other fixture.

After confounding all expectations by reaching the semi-finals of the 2002 World Cup where they were beaten by Germany, South Korea have endured a dip in form since.

Portuguese coach Humberto Coelho has struggled to win over fans since taking over in the wake of Dutchman Guus Hiddink's inspirational stewardship.

The Koreans came dangerously close to being knocked out of the Asian Cup in qualifying before squeezing through last year, although will now have a full-strength squad at his disposal.

Korea's foreign legion plying their trade abroad have all been drafted into the squad with forwards such as Japan-based Ahn Jung-Hwan, Seol Ki-Hyeon of Anderlect in Belgium, PSV Eindhoven's Park Ji-Sung and Cha Du-Ri of German outfit Bayer Leverkusen all back in.

Lebanon are likely to present South Korea with their toughest challenge, and will be looking to playmaker Roda Antar to cause the home side problems.

Antar has enjoyed a superb season in the Bundesliga so far, impressing for SC Freiburg.

Meanwhile, Group 4 sees rapidly improving China open their campaign against Kuwait in Guangzhou, a match likely to go a long way towards determining the winners of the pool, which also includes Hong Kong and Malaysia.

Having qualified for their first ever World Cup at the 2002 finals - where they lost all three matches - China are desperate to build on that record with a second successful qualifying campaign.

Dutch Coach Arie Haan also knows that a strong start to World Cup qualifying is essential if his team are to head into this summer's Asian Cup finals in China with confidence.

But China's hopes of victory against Kuwait have been dealt a cruel blow by a serious leg injury to influential midfielder Li Tie of English Premiership side Everton.

"Li Tie may have suffered a broken leg in training," China's assistant coach Wu Jingui told Hong Kong reporters during a spying mission to Kuwait's training camp in Hong Kong.

"It's bad news - very bad news for us and the team," Wu added.

In West Asia, Iran and Saudi Arabia are favourites to advance though the Iranians have potentially awkward matches against Qatar and Jordan, the surprise package of last year's Asian Cup qualifiers.

Iran kick off against Qatar in Tehran today, with Jordan facing Southeast Asian minnows Laos in the other Group 1 game.

Saudi Arabia, who have qualified for the last three World Cups but who were memorably walloped 10-1 by Germany during the 2002 finals, are expected to top Group 8 which includes Indonesia, Turkmenistan and Sri Lanka.

The United Arab Emirates, participants in the 1990 finals in Italy, are expected to top Group 5 but could face stiff resistance from Thailand, who have made great strides under Brazilian coach Roberto de Carvalho.

The UAE play the Thais in Dubai today and approach the game in some disarray having sacked former coach Roy Hodgson late last year. The Democratic People's Republic of Korea and Yemen complete the group.

World Cup 2006 Asian qualifying schedule

Group 1 Iran, Qatar, Jordan, Laos Fixtures

18/02/2004: Iran v Qatar, Jordan v Laos

31/03/2004: Jordan v Qatar, Laos v Iran

09/06/2004: Iran v Jordan, Qatar v Laos

08/09/2004: Jordan v Iran, Laos v Qatar

13/10/2004: Laos v Jordan, Qatar v Iran

17/11/2004: Qatar v Jordan, Iran v Laos

Group 2

Uzbekistan, Iraq, Palestine, Chinese Taipei


18/02/2004: Uzbekistan v Iraq, Palestine v Chinese Taipei

31/03/2004: Palestine v Iraq, Chinese Taipei v Uzbekistan

09/06/2004: Uzbekistan v Palestine, Iraq v Chinese Taipei

08/09/2004: Palestine v Uzbekistan, Chinese Taipei v Iraq

13/10/2004: Chinese Taipei v Palestine, Iraq v Uzbekistan

17/11/2004: Iraq v Palestine, Uzbekistan v Chinese Taipei

Group 3

Japan, Oman, India, Singapore


18/02/2004: Japan v Oman, India v Singapore

31/03/2004: India v Oman, Singapore v Japan

09/06/2004: Japan v India, Oman v Singapore

08/09/2004: India v Japan, Singapore v Oman

13/10/2004: Singapore v India, Oman v Japan

17/11/2004: Oman v India, Japan v Singapore

Group 4

China, Kuwait, Malaysia, Hong Kong


18/02/2004: China v Kuwait, Malaysia v Hong Kong

31/03/2004: Malaysia v Kuwait, Hong Kong v China

09/06/2004: China v Malaysia, Kuwait v Hong Kong

08/09/2004: Malaysia v China, Hong Kong v Kuwait

13/10/2004: Hong Kong v Malaysia, Kuwait v China

17/11/2004: Kuwait v Malaysia, China v Hong Kong

Group 5

United Arab Emirates, Thailand, Yemen, DPR Korea


18/02/2004: UAE v Thailand, Yemen v DPR Korea

31/03/2004: Yemen v Thailand, DPR Korea v UAE

09/06/2004: UAE v Yemen, Thailand v DPR Korea

08/09/2004: Yemen v UAE, DPR Korea v Thailand

13/10/2004: DPR Korea v Yemen, Thailand v UAE

17/11/2004: Thailand v Yemen, UAE v DPR Korea

Group 6

Bahrain, Syria, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan


18/02/2004: Bahrain v Syria, Kyrgyzstan v Tajikistan

31/03/2004: Kyrgyzstan v Syria, Tajikistan v Bahrain

09/06/2004: Bahrain v Kyrgyzstan, Syria v Tajikistan

08/09/2004: Kyrgyzstan v Bahrain, Tajikistan v Syria

13/10/2004: Tajikistan v Kyrgyzstan, Syria v Bahrain

17/11/2004: Syria v Kyrgyzstan, Bahrain v Tajikistan

Group 7

South Korea, Lebanon, Viet Nam, Maldives


18/02/2004: South Korea v Lebanon, Viet Nam v Maldives

31/03/2004: Viet Nam v Lebanon, Maldives v South Korea

09/06/2004: South Korea v Viet Nam, Lebanon v Maldives

08/09/2004: Viet Nam v South Korea, Maldives v Lebanon

13/10/2004: Viet Nam v Maldives, Lebanon v South Korea

17/11/2004: Lebanon v Viet Nam, South Korea v Maldives

Group 8

Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, Turkmenistan, Sri Lanka


18/02/2004: Saudi Arabia v Indonesia, Turkmenistan v Sri Lanka

31/03/2004: Turkmenistan v Indonesia, Sri Lanka v Saudi Arabia

09/06/2004: Saudi Arabia v Turkmenistan, Indonesia v Sri Lanka

08/09/2004: Turkmenistan v Saudi Arabia, Sri Lanka v Indonesia

13/10/2004: Sri Lanka v Turkmenistan, Indonesia v Saudi Arabia

17/11/2004: Indonesia v Turkmenistan, Saudi Arabia v Sri Lanka

Note: Eight group winners advance to final round of qualifying.

(China Daily 02/18/2004

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