| Coach Stephen Constantine offers a word of advice to Bhaichung Bhutia and Bijen Singh during training at the Saitama stadium on Tuesday. (AFP)
Saitama: Asian football’s heavyweights will seek to edge closer to a place in the 2006 World Cup finals as the next round of the region’s marathon qualifying tournament takes place on Wednesday.
Three of Asia’s strongest sides — Japan, South Korea and China — head into the latest round brimming with confidence after recent morale-boosting victories over European opposition.
Japan are favourites to beat India in Saitama and extend their lead in group 3 which also includes Oman and Singapore. Japan have won both their games so far.
The Japanese have just returned home from a successful tour of Europe which included an impressive victory over the Czech Republic in Prague and a 1-1 draw with England in Manchester last week.
Japan’s Brazilian coach Zico will be handicapped in the sense that injuries will force some key players, including Europe-based stars Hidetoshi Nakata and Junichi Inamoto, to sit out. The Japanese should still be too strong for India and Zico has been toying with a six-man attack in training.
Zico, however, has warned Japan against complacency.
“We must forget everything about playing squarely against European powerhouses, not to become overconfident. If we underestimate India, we will have a slap in the face,” Zico warned. “We must be patient to score and try to put pressure on them from the very beginning of the game.”
The Indians, under British coach Stephen Constantine, began their campaign with a 1-0 win over Singapore before slumping to a 1-5 home defeat against Oman.
The Indians will be under no illusion as they go into the match as underdogs, yet an occasion like this can inspire them to play out of their skins. It’s not often that the Indians get a chance to rub shoulders with the best, so this is a wonderful opportunity for Constantine’s wards to impress the world.
Bhaichung Bhutia, the only Indian to have played in the English League (second division Bury FC), has made a name for himself in south and south-east Asia. Team East Bengal has made an impression, too, winning the ASEAN Cup last year in Jakarta and having made the AFC Cup quarter finals this season.
Constantine said Bhutia can score against any team. “The 27-year-old is a fox in the box,” said Constantine after the official training session.
“He is a born scorer. He will score in any level with any team when he is given an opportunity. He is ‘David Beckham’ of India, but he doesn’t have as many tattoos as David has.
“I think as long as you believe in yourself, there’s always hope. Japan, they don’t play as well as they can do, especially against the Asian sides. The results in Europe have been fantastic.
“When it comes down to the Asian teams in this group, they do what they have to do to win the game. But so far they are top of the group,” said Constantine.
Japan edged past Oman 1-0 and struggled to beat Singapore 2-1 in their second game.
A total of 32 teams, split into eight groups of four, are taking part in Asia’s World Cup qualifying tournament. The eight group winners advance to final qualifying next year.
In other matches on Wednesday, coach-less South Korea will be looking for victory against Vietnam to preserve their lead in group 7.
South Korea, who reached the semi-finals of the World Cup two years ago, have had a shaky spell culminating in a humiliating 0-0 draw against the Maldives in their most recent qualifier in March.
That result led to the sacking of coach Humberto Coelho, but a 2-1 win over Turkey last Saturday has restored some confidence.
In group 4, China should have little difficulty in overcoming Malaysia in Tianjin to make it three wins out of three.
China, coached by legendary former Dutch international Arie Haan, bounced back from a disastrous tour of Europe earlier this year to post a 2-1 victory over Hungary last week.
Saudi Arabia face a crucial game with Turkmenistan to determine who goes top in group 8. Both sides are level on six points after the opening two rounds.
Another intriguing battle is on the cards in Tehran, where unbeaten Iran and Jordan meet in group 1.
The India versus Japan match will be telecast live on TEN Sports from 4 pm (IST), according to a release from the sports channel.