SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — With continental powerhouses Saudi Arabia and Iran virtually assured of advancing to the next stage of qualifying for the 2014 World Cup, much of the second-round drama is expected to center on Southeast Asia this week.
Of the fifteen second-round matches played last weekend, the few that remain finely balanced in Thursday's return legs involve one of the continent's most passionate football regions.
The last time a country from Southeast Asia made the World Cup was 1938 — when Indonesia was known as the Dutch East Indies — and after none of its teams qualified for the 2011 Asian Cup in January, having just a single representative in the group stage of qualifying for Brazil 2014 would be another disappointment.
One Southeast Asian spot in the next round is guaranteed as archrivals and neighbors Singapore and Malaysia were drawn together, with Singapore winning a thrilling first leg 5-3 at home. Other countries from the region are still in contention after the first leg of the second round: Indonesia earned a 1-1 draw in Turkmenistan, Thailand takes a 1-0 advantage to Palestine; while in Yangon, Myanmar has to reverse a 2-0 first-leg loss to Oman.
The 15 winners will progress to the third round where they will be joined by Australia, Bahrain, Japan, North Korea and South Korea, with the 20 teams to be divided into five groups of four teams. The top two teams from each of those groups in turn progresses to the fourth round.
Singapore may regret allowing a 4-1 home lead in the first leg become 5-3. The return match promises to be a grand occasion, with the 85,000 capacity Bukit Jalil Stadium in Kuala Lumpur expected to be full.
"Malaysia will progress to the next round," B.Sathianathan, who left his post as Malaysian head coach in 2008, told the Associated Press. "The full capacity is extra motivation for Malaysia and will spur the players to go the extra mile to qualify for the next round. The fitness level of both teams will decide the outcome especially in the second half of the game.
"Both teams showed in the first leg that their weak point is defending. My prediction is based on the Singapore defense, which is not as solid and strong as it used to be. The Singapore coach has done a remarkable job since taking over but he needs to inject new blood in the team for the future."
With political wrangling off the field, it has been a tough year for Indonesian football. Those problems cost Alfred Reidl his job as head coach just over a week ahead of the Turkmenistan match. Despite the dismissal, Reidl believes his former charges will progress to the next stage with a win in the home leg.
"Indonesia deserved the draw and the players are clearly better than their opponents at an individual level," Riedl said. "Indonesia had problems only in the first 20 minutes in defense but after that, controlled the match, despite having to play on a terrible pitch.
"It would be a big surprise if Indonesia does not reach the next round."
Thailand's prospects of making the group stage — when seeded teams Australia, Japan, Bahrain and North and South Korea enter — would be much better if Suchao Nutnum had not missed a last-minute penalty against Palestine in the first leg.
Thailand, which parted company with former England captain Bryan Robson as coach in June, dominated the game but only won 1-0 thanks to a first-half goal from Jakkraphan Kaewprom.
Zesh Rehman, a former Fulham defender who is now captain of Thai Premier League champion Muang Thong United, is confident the team will progress.
"Thailand played very well in the first leg, it was solid at the back and looked a threat going forward," Rehman said. "The last-minute penalty would have been enough for Thailand to go through to the next stage but now it's wide open. I expect Palestine to play with two strikers and really go for a win in the return game because it must score twice. If Thailand defends the same as a team I'm sure it can hold out for a clean sheet and progress."
Unfortunately for the Philippines and Vietnam, the group stage looks to be out of reach after losing 3-0 to Kuwait and Qatar respectively. Laos shocked China by taking a 2-0 lead in China but ended up losing 7-2.
In other matches that look up for grabs wide open, Tajikistan will try to overcome its 2-1 first leg defeat against Syria, a match that was played in Jordan due to the political unrest in Syria.
The two highest-profile head coaches in Asian football enjoyed comfortable home wins in their first taste of competitive action on the continent and are almost certain to be in the group stage.
Former Barcelona and Netherlands boss Frank Rijkaard led Saudi Arabia to a 3-0 win over Hong Kong, while ex-Portugal and Real Madrid head coach Carlos Queiroz saw his Iran team stroll to a 4-0 victory over Maldives.
The western side of the continent performed well and almost certainly ended any South Asian hopes of progressing to the group stage.
Jordan thrashed Nepal 9-0, Lebanon defeated Bangladesh 4-0 while UAE take a 3-0 advantage to Delhi after defeating nine-man India at home. Uzbekistan should be untroubled on defending its 4-0 first-leg win when it visits Kyrgyzstan.