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Asia Editor John Duerden casts an eye over this weekend's 2010 World Cup qualification action on the giant continent...

Now is the time for any team still with serious pretensions of qualifying for the 2010 World Cup.

At the halfway stage with four games remaining, many of the contenders still in with a shout have already used their second chances. This is the last one.

Eight of the ten are in action this weekend. Only Australia and South Korea, the respective leaders of Group One and Two, can sit back and watch events unfold.

The match of the day is in the west, where two of the continent’s powerhouses meet. Any game between Iran and Saudi Arabia can be described as a crunch encounter but there is much more than regional pride at stake this time.

The Saudis are the ones in most danger. Four points from four games is not what you expect from a team that has qualified for every global tournament since 1994.

It started pretty well with a draw against Iran and an away win at UAE but then came two devastating defeats at the hands of the two Koreas. Now the Sons of the Desert are three points behind North Korea in second and four behind leaders in South Korea. Iran are in third with six.

It wouldn’t look quite so bad if the Saudis weren’t facing a trip to Tehran this weekend. In Asia, visiting the Azadi Stadium when you need a result is not ideal.

Moreover, Iran need the points themselves and even if they didn’t, Team Melli would enjoy making life difficult for their Arabian rivals. 

It came as no surprise that the second of those Korean setbacks cost Saudi coach Nasser Al Johar his job - the 20th coaching change in the Kingdom since 1994, the year when they reached the second round of the World Cup.

Injuries have caused problems for the team but defeat in Tehran would almost certainly end hopes of automatic qualification - even the third place play-off spot would be receding into the distance. 

The news that Yasser Al Qahtani, already suspended for the Iran clash but eligible for the UAE match four days later, has been thrown off the team by new boss Jose Peseiro has come a shock for fans and is not the ideal preparation.

“The coach has decided against including Yasser Al Qahtani after he missed the training and didn’t reply repeated phone calls,” Saudi team manager Fahed Al Musebeih said.

Ali Daei will be nervous also. His decision not to summon Ali Karimi will only be accepted if Team Melli win. They have done so once in four games and can't afford to let more points at home slip.

Few in UAE will sympathise, as they have their minds on other things.

Always the outsiders in Group Two, the Gulf State have collected just one point from their four matches. Failure to win in the unwelcome arena that is Pyongyang will be the final nail in the coffin, especially with trips to Tehran and Riyadh to come.

It will be tough. North Korea won in Abu Dhabi in the first meeting between the two. A similarly positive result for the East Asians would put them top of the group ahead of next week’s clash with South Korea in Seoul. 

The situation in Group One is a little more clear-cut. Australia may not have been playing to their potential but the Socceroos have collected ten points from four matches. With three of the remaining quartet to be played down under, it is unthinkable that a second successive World Cup will slip out of their grasp.

Japan are in second, with two points less, but can go top this weekend.

The Blue Samurai have won two and drawn two so far but have yet to convince a sceptical press that boss Takeshi Okada has what it takes to achieve his (rather ambitious) target of a last-four spot at the 2010 World Cup.

A win at home against Bahrain, four points behind in third, will almost be enough to secure a fourth appearance on the global stage. 

It will also give Okada revenge after two defeats in Bahrain in the space of a year - losses that saw him widely criticised at home. For Bahrain, in third place on goal difference, any kind of result will be much celebrated.

In reality, the real race is for the team that will finish in third place in Group One. Qatar are level on four points with Bahrain and visit bottom team Uzbekistan on Saturday.

The Central Asians were widely tipped to take the play-off place at least. It hasn’t happened that way at all. An opening day 3-0 defeat in Qatar was a shock and knocked the wind out of Uzbek sails.

But so weak has been the challenge from Qatar and Bahrain, that if Uzbekistan win in Tashkent on Saturday and, as is likely, Bahrain lose in Japan, then the bottom team could leapfrog into third.

Everything will be clearer very soon. 

John Duerden

Asia Editor