Blue Samurai need only a draw to book their plane tickets to Brazil.
Asian champions Japan face hot regional rivals Australia on Tuesday needing just a point to become the first country to qualify for next year’s World Cup alongside hosts Brazil.
In a rematch of the 2011 Asian Cup final won by Japan, the Blue Samurai are strongly tipped to book their ticket after totting up 13 points in six games to sit six clear in Group B.
By contrast, third-placed Australia have only six points from five games and face a nerve-shredding fortnight, starting on Tuesday, when they will play their last three matches of the final round of Asian qualifying.
“I expect Australia to fight desperately to take the automatic qualification place. We must prepare perfectly to face Australia, who have their backs to the wall,” warned Japan coach Alberto Zaccheroni.
Only the top two in the two final qualifying groups gain an automatic berth, with the two third-placed sides then facing each other for the right to contest an intercontinental play-off.
Japan, fronted by Manchester United’s Shinji Kagawa and CSKA Moscow talisman Keisuke Honda, have won all three of their home games in Group B, scoring 10 goals in the process, to stand on the verge of their fifth straight World Cup.
In their away fixture against Australia last June, Japan were the aggressors and led 1-0 with 20 minutes remaining before Luke Wilkshire equalised from the penalty spot after Atsuto Uchida’s tug on Alex Brosque.
However, Australian hopes will be buoyed after Japan’s 2-0 friendly loss to Bulgaria last week, following their 2-1 qualifying defeat to Jordan in March, the first time they have lost two in a row under Zaccheroni.
And the Italian coach has repeatedly warned that complacency poses a big threat to Asia’s number one team ahead of what he called the most important game of his three-year tenure.
“What I worry about is the atmosphere that we almost qualified for the World Cup mathematically, although ‘almost qualified’ and ‘qualified’ are quite different,” he said.
“We will play against them for a place in the World Cup. We must have the same feelings as if we play the Champions League final… this is the most important game since I was appointed,” he added.
Australia have recalled skipper Lucas Neill for his 90th cap, after the ex-Premier League defender was suspended for the 2-2 home draw with Oman, and coach Holger Osieck may also turn to veteran forward Tim Cahill up front.
“It’s a challenge, but it’s also an exciting one — the prospect of having it all in our own hands,” Cahill, the New York Red Bulls striker, told the Football Federation Australia website.
“If you’re not up for it, you shouldn’t be here.”
Australia’s last two games of qualifying are both at home, against Jordan and Iraq over the next two weeks, and midfielder Mark Bresciano said they could cope with the pressure and reach their third World Cup in a row.
“We have the quality to qualify once again for the World Cup. Some results haven’t gone our way in the past, now it’s come down to the crunch and I think we have the players that can step up in these type of situations,” he said.
Fourth and fifth-placed Oman and Iraq will both try to keep the heat on Australia when they meet in Muscat, while South Korea will look to take control of a tight Group A when they take on bottom side Lebanon.
Choi Kang-Hee’s side trail Uzbekistan by a point but they have a game in hand and can leapfrog the group leaders with a positive result in Beirut.
Iran, currently lying third behind South Korea, will aim to keep up the chase for automatic qualification when they play Qatar in Doha.