Asian qualifying for next year’s Olympics gets into high gear this week with a double-header of games played against a backdrop of festering instability in the Middle East.
Syria will play both their games away from home as fears grow of civil war, injury-hit Australia’s away tie with Iraq has been shifted out of the country over security concerns and Japan head to protest-hit Bahrain.
Tuesday and Wednesday’s games, followed by another six on Sunday, are the second and third installment of Asia’s final qualifying round, with the top team in each of three groups gaining automatic berths at London 2012.
The three runners-up will enter a round-robin for the prize of a play-off against a team from the African confederation.
South Korea, Asia’s top-ranked under-23 outfit, got off to a winning start in Group A against Oman two months ago, while Uzbekistan top Group B and Japan and Syria are level on points at the top of Group C.
Australia will try to bounce back from September’s disappointing 0-0 home draw with UAE as they face Iraq on Tuesday in Doha, where South Korea will play Qatar a day later.
Aurelio Vidmar’s “Olyroos” will take on the Iraqis, who are playing all their home fixtures abroad on orders on security advice, without striker Marko Jesic, who needs surgery for an ingrown hair.
The Newcastle Jets marksman has been replaced by Cameron Edwards, who plays for Reading in the English second tier. Australia will then return to Sydney to play Uzbekistan on Sunday.
“After drawing our opening match against the UAE we need to get a good result from these two matches to give us the best possible chance of qualifying for the Olympics,” Vidmar said.
“With injuries to a number of players we have used in the previous matches, we’ve selected a few new faces following our recent training camp in Sydney,” he told the Football Federation Australia (FFA) website.
“It will be up to these players to take their opportunity and step up to the challenge ahead.”
Japan’s game in Manama, scene of long-running political protests, on Tuesday will be followed by Sunday’s visit from Syria, whose country is also in the grip of bloody upheaval with 24 protesters killed last week.