Asia and Africa ready to start qualifiers, South America resumes after break
By CHRIS ALTRUDA
(AP) -- NORTHBROOK, Ill. (STATS) - Club glory has been achieved, new stars have emerged and older ones have begun to find the twilight of their last years. Yet everything old is new again on the road to Rio as a summer of continental qualifying kicks into high gear.
The first stop is Asia, where the final round is set to begin to determine the allotment of 4.5 spots to the field of 32. The biggest match in the first two cycles of matches in Group A takes place June 3, where Uzbekistan hosts Iran. Those two sides vie for an inside track to join group favorite South Korea as the two automatic qualifiers from the group. The White Wolves were surprising fourth-place finishers at the Asian Cup last year and will be relying on talisman Timur Kapadze to gain a full three points at Iran's expense.
In Group B, Japan and Australia are the overwhelming favorites to win the other two automatic berths, and the Samurai Blue will play on all three matchdays over a nine-day span. In what has quickly become a burgeoning regional rivalry, Japan completes that gauntlet June 12 at Brisbane against the Socceroos in a rematch of their Asian Cup final - won by Japan 1-0. They should enter that match with the maximum six points after hosting Jordan and Oman prior to their big showdown.
Japan has a growing number of players at clubs outside its domestic league, most notably Shinji Okazaki with Stuttgart, Shinji Kagawa at Bundesliga champion Borussia Dortmund and highly touted 19-year-old Ryo Miyaichi learning his way at Arsenal, giving coach Alberto Zaccheroni plenty of options up front.
The Socceroos open their qualifying campaign with a potentially tricky draw at Muscat versus Oman, where they dropped a 1-0 decision in the previous round. Gaffer Holger Osick has an experience-laden roster at his disposal, with nine players owning at least 40 caps, led by Fulham goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer with 95.
Africa begins its second round of qualifying as 40 countries have been broken into 10 groups, with the winner of each four-team pod advancing to the final round to determine five berths in Brazil. Group C may prove to be the most intriguing group, with favorite Ivory Coast, Morocco and upstart Gambia all vying for advancement.
The White Elephants have star power in Didier Drogba - fresh off his Champions League title with Chelsea - and Toure brothers Kolo and Yaya, who powered Manchester City to its first Premier League title in franchise history. Morocco, meanwhile, has the pedigree that will see it become the first African country to reach 100 World Cup qualifier matches during this stage. The Scorpions have a surprisingly eclectic roster of players toiling abroad at the club level.
Morocco may have the most to gain - and lose - in the early matchday schedule, opening its qualifying at Bakau versus Gambia on June 2 before hosting Ivory Coast at Marrakech one week later.
While not as balanced, Group D may have the most compelling clash of top-two teams with Ghana and Zambia. The Copper Bullets seek their first World Cup appearance after a stunning run to the 2012 African Cup of Nations title. For the Black Stars - paced with a finally healthy Michael Essien as well as Asamoah Gyan and Kevin-Prince Boateng - this may be their last chance to become the first African country to reach the World Cup semifinals following a gut-wrenching exit to Uruguay on penalties in the South African quarterfinals two years ago.
The teams meet in Ndola on June 9, while the return match in Ghana closes the qualifying cycle in 2013.
Speaking of Uruguay, manager Oscar Tabarez has a golden opportunity to put a stranglehold on a qualifying spot out of South America in this cycle as La Celeste host both Venezuela and Peru in Montevideo.
The reigning Copa America champions are tied for first with a match in hand entering this week. Tabarez appears to have a full roster at his disposal, headed by the potent forward tandem of Diego Forlan and Luis Suarez, supported by Edinson Cavani and Sebastian Abreu.
And it wouldn't be a World Cup soccer story without a note from Argentina, which, as usual, is making news for who is not on the roster for its home match against Ecuador - notably playmaking midfielder Juan Roman Riquelme and forward Carlos Tevez. Albiceleste manager Alejandro Sabella again opted to field a roster without Riquelme, the true No. 10 who has played well domestically with Boca Juniors of late.
Tevez - who did return to Manchester City in time to help it win the EPL title after a season-long feud with club manager Roberto Mancini - has been unable to crack a squad of attackers highlighted by Man City teammate Sergio Aguero, Barcelona great Leonel Messi and Real Madrid teammates Angel Di Maria and Gonzalo Higuain.
Updated June 4, 2012