SEOUL, South Korea (AP) – Asian football's leading teams kick off their 2014 World Cup qualifying campaigns on Friday, with Japan, South Korea and Australia all harboring expectations, not merely hope, of reaching the showpiece event in Brazil.
All three of those nations are at home in their opening matches, with Japan having the most challenging task against 2010 World Cup qualifiers North Korea, which is also making its first appearance in qualifying for 2014 in the third round of regional competition.
South Korea has been buoyed by the news that captain Park Chu-young has signed for English Premier League giant Arsenal. However, the South Koreans will be without Manchester United's Park Ji-sung after he retired from international football in January, while Bolton's Lee Chung-yong, Son Heung-min of Hamburg and Wolfburg's Koo Ja-cheol are all injured and will miss the games against Lebanon and Kuwait.
Despite losing a recent friendly 3-0 to Japan, in Japan, South Korea should have few problems emerging from a group that also includes the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait, who will meet in Al Ain on Friday.
''Lebanon look good going forward but have some weaknesses in defense,'' coach Cho Kwang-rae said after scouting the opposition. ''By playing at a high tempo, we can cause problems and create opportunities. We need to make sure we are focused and get the result we need.''
Lebanon is regarded as the weakest team in the group, and its German coach Theo Bucker is under no illusions over the size of the challenge ahead.
''We are looking for a good result, that for us could be to get a point or three points or not to lose by a big margin,'' Bucker told The Associated Press. ''We are not focusing on Korea, we have to overcome Kuwait and UAE. If I say to you that we want to win in Korea, everyone will say 'You are dreaming just like people without money dream to win the lottery.' But nothing is impossible.''
The Emiratis picked up a welcome warm-up win on Friday with a 3-1 defeat of Qatar, while two days later, Kuwait lost 1-0 to Oman.
The team in the best form entering the third round is undoubtedly Japan. The Asian champion is unbeaten since Italian coach Alberto Zaccheroni took over a year ago.
However, North Korea could provide a sterner test in Saitama, and Japan has called in all of its big-name European stars such as Shinji Kagawa of Borussia Dortmund and CSKA Moscow's Keisuke Honda. The only major absence is that of Inter Milan defender Yuto Nagatomo, who is recovering from a dislocated shoulder.
''Japan did very well at the (2010) World Cup and we won the Asian Cup so teams are very motivated when they play us,'' said Zaccheroni. ''There are a lot of expectations of us but we have to show character, good balance and show no fear ... We must prepare well and turn pressure into power.''
In the other Group C game, Uzbekistan will make the relatively short journey to Tajikistan. The host is fortunate to be playing at all and only made it after Syria was disqualified after fielding an ineligible player in the earlier qualification rounds.
China has failed to make it into the last stages of qualifying for the past two World Cups, but is capable of overcoming Group A opponents Singapore as well as Iraq and Jordan and advancing to the fourth round.
Of the three Southeast nations still involved, Singapore is perhaps the best-placed to progress. Despite a stirring win in the previous round over rivals Malaysia, the Lions face a difficult assignment especially starting with a match at the Chinese city of Kunming, 1,900 meters above sea level.
For China, the game is the first under new coach Jose Antonio Camacho.
''I will meet enormous expectations from Chinese fans and the Chinese society after taking over the team,'' the former Real Madrid and Spain boss told reporters at his presentation to the media earlier in August. ''Pressure to me is something beautiful. For me and my crew, our short-term goal is to lead China to qualify for the World Cup, but this is a very complicated mission.''
Iraq will also unveil a newly appointed coach in Zico when its hosts Jordan in Arbil.
''The deal with Zico is done and he started his work with our team,'' Iraq Football Federation President Najih Hamoud told The AP on Monday. ''We hope to see good results by Zico and our national team.''
Brazilian great Zico became the 16th foreign coach out of the 20 teams remaining in Asian qualifying, with only the two Koreas, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan employing local coaches.
Australia has German Holger Osieck in charge and Asia's second highest-ranked nation kicks off its quest to appear at a third successive World Cup when it hosts Thailand in Group D in Brisbane.
''We need to be very strong in this campaign and have a great start,'' Osieck said. ''People normally would expect us to beat Thailand with a great score but the danger of underrating a team is always there.''
Thailand also has a German coach, Winfried Schaefer, who replaces former Manchester United and England great Bryan Robson.
The other Group E game between Bahrain and Qatar in Riffa could prove vital in deciding second place in the group.
The top two teams in each group will progress to a fourth round, where there will be two five-team round-robin groups. The top two from those groups will qualify for the World Cup, while the two third-place teams will play off against each other, with the winner in turn progressing to a further playoff against a South American team.