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September 23, 2017

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Australia aim to close gap on Japan in qualifiers

SEOUL -- Australia travels to Jordan aiming not only for its first win in the last full round of Asian qualifying for the 2014 World Cup, but anxious also to close the gap on regional and group rival Japan.

Japan have seven points from three games in Group B — one of two, five-nation groups in this stage — and is expected to pick up points at home to Iraq this week. The top two teams from each group qualify automatically for the World Cup and Australia, with two points from two games, could fall even further off the pace without a win at Amman on Tuesday.

"We've not had an easy start," Australia captain Lucas Neill said after a 3-0 warmup win over Lebanon at Beirut last week. That victory, the Socceroos' first since February, helped relieve the pressure after two opening draws in the World Cup qualifiers and a disappointing 3-1 loss at Scotland in an international friendly in August.

"We've gained two valuable points, but we really need now to play to our best or near best to try and give ourselves the best chance of three points (against Jordan) because it sends a little bit of a statement to the rest of the group. It gives us a chance to keep on the heels of Japan, who have obviously got off to a fantastic start."

Jordan, with one point, also needs the win and will be hoping to recover its impressive form from the previous round of qualification.

Japan has no such worries. Already five points clear of a chasing pack that also includes Oman, the Asian champions could put themselves on the brink of qualification for Brazil with a home win over an Iraqis team guided by former Japan coach Zico.

With a settled and fit squad, perhaps the only issue for Japan coach Alberto Zaccheroni is where to play Shinji Kagawa. The 23-year-old Kagawa has become a star for new club Manchester United, where he plays in the "hole," just behind the striker. For his country however, that position currently belongs to CSKA Moscow's Keisuke Honda.

Kagawa spent 45 ineffective minutes on the left wing in a 1-0 friendly win over the United Arab Emirates last Thursday before being substituted.

"Obviously I always want to play in the hole but no matter what I say (to the coach) the situation isn't going to change," Kagawa said last week. "That's the way it goes and basically I just have to deliver results in whichever position I am played in."

In Group A, three teams seem to be vying for second spot behind a South Korean side that has won both its games so far.

"I believe that in our group we have one natural candidate to qualify and that is Korea," Iran coach Carlos Queiroz told The Associated Press in a telephone interview. "Then there is the second line which is Iran, Uzbekistan and Qatar. We can't forget Lebanon who can put one of one these teams out of the World Cup."

Iran has four points from two games and travels to Lebanon, while South Korea faces a tricky trip to Tashkent to take on an Uzbekistan team in need of victory.

Uzbekistan was tipped as a possible automatic qualifier, but has collected just one point from two games so far. Already the national association has changed the head coach.

South Korea is on a high after its bronze medal success at the 2012 Olympics.

Some of the stars of that under-23 team are expected to play against Uzbekistan, including Ki Sung-yeung who recently joined English Premier League team Swansea City in a deal reportedly worth US$9 million and Park Chu-young who left Arsenal on loan to Spanish side Celta Vigo.

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