TOKYO — Japan coach Alberto Zaccheroni will rely heavily on Europe-based stars Shinji Kagawa and Keisuke Honda when his team faces Oman, Jordan and Australia in the last full round of Asian qualifying for the World Cup.
Kagawa was in peak form in the second half of the German league season while helping Borussia Dortmund to its first domestic league and cup double. The 23-year-old forward kept the momentum going when he scored the first goal in Japan's 2-0 win over Azerbaijan in a friendly last week.
Japan hosts Oman on Sunday at Saitama Stadium and Jordan five days later before playing at regional archrival Australia on June 12. The qualifying Group B also includes Iraq.
Honda's career was interrupted by an injury last year, but the 25-year-old CSKA Moscow midfielder will be aiming re-establish his role as a team leader after being out of the spotlight for so long.
Honda and Kagawa are among the 12 Europe-based players selected by Zaccheroni, who said it's too early to start thinking about the number of points required to secure a spot at the 2014 World Cup.
"From my experience I can say it's important not to calculate," he said. "In 30 years of being a coach I have learned the importance of focusing on the task in front of you."
Zaccheroni has come under criticism after losses to North Korea and Uzbekistan at the end of the previous round of Asian qualifying cost the 59-year-old Italian the unbeaten record he held since taking over in September 2010.
South Korea, semifinalist at the 2002 World Cup, will resume its qualifying campaign on June 8 in an away match at Qatar.
South Korea coach Choi Kang-hee must decide on the right balance between Europe-based players and those who have performed well in the domestic K-League.
"As far as I can see, most of those players in foreign countries are not given many chances in their respective clubs and therefore not fit enough for competitive matches," Choi said.
K-League strikers Lee Dong-gook and Lee Keun-ho played a major role in helping South Korea beat Kuwait 2-0 in February and are certain to figure in Choi's plans.
The top two teams in each of the two five-team qualifying groups will secure an automatic spot at Brazil 2014.
Japan and Australia will be strong favorites to advance out of Group B, as will South Korea and Iran in Group A. The teams finishing third in each group will go into a playoff, with the winner getting another shot at a place in Brazil via an intercontinental qualifier.
Oman's qualification was in doubt until the end of the previous round when it edged group rivals Saudi Arabia and Thailand. Paul Le Guen's squad has displayed contrasting home and away form, crashing to heavy defeats on the road to Thailand and Australia, yet defeating the same two opponents in Muscat.
The team will be looking for big contributions from goalkeeper Ali Al Habsi, who plays club football for Premier League side Wigan, and striker Amad Al Hosni.
"We are ready. We know that it is going to be tough, but we will fight," Habsi said. "We hope to have a good score against Japan in the opening match."
Oman's preparations, however, have been set back by injuries to key defender Hussain Mudhaffar and striker Hassan Rabee'a. Both have been ruled out for the first three games.
Sunday's other Group B clash involves Jordan hosting Iraq at Amman International Stadium.
Iraq is aiming to qualify for the World Cup for the first time since 1986. With legendary Brazilian Zico at the helm, Iraq has had a run of five wins despite being required to play two of its home matches on neutral turf.
Iraq defender Bassim Abbas knows that winning the first two matches is crucial to his side's chances for qualification.
"The players believe the first and second matches, against Jordan and Oman respectively, are fundamental to our hopes of qualifying," he said. "We absolutely must take the six points that are up for grabs."
In Group A, Lebanon will host Qatar at Beirut's Sports City Stadium while Iran travels to Tashkent for a meeting with Uzbekistan.
Lebanon's German coach Theo Buecker has recalled Mohamed Ghaddar and Zakaria Charara. Ghaddar scored the first goal in the 3-1 defeat of UAE in Beirut last September, a result that set them on their way to second place in the group.
The 26-year-old Charara has been impressing in the Malaysian league and will be looking to make a major contribution in Sunday's group opener against the Qataris.
"The opening game against Qatar is well within our reach," Ghaddar said. "Everything has been going great up until now and we need to take three points and set the tone for what lies ahead."
Qatar's Brazilian coach Paolo Autuori says his team must stay optimistic even if they aren't among the favorites to advance.
"Obviously, South Korea and Iran are the favorites from our group," Autuori said. "But that doesn't mean that they are unbeatable."
Uzbekistan will be seeking its first qualification for football's global showpiece.
"We are clear that there will be more difficult games in the final stage as the teams we are facing are stronger," Uzbek coach Vadim Abramov told FIFA.com. "But we have shown that we are capable of competing against any rivals so we are confident that we can go to Brazil 2014."