Analysing the Socceroos' biggest rivals

Ten nations will contest the final group stage of AFC FIFA World Cup Qualifying, we take a look at the 'big four' outside of the Qantas Socceroos.

Four Asian nations will qualify for automatically for the 2014 FIFA World Cup when Round Four qualifying is concluded mid next year. Meanwhile, a fifth Asian nation will have unenviable task of playing off against a South American qualifier as Australia did against Uruguay in 2005, and indeed four years earlier against the same opponent.

Six nations, including Australia, have already secured passage to Round Four, however a further eight nations will be vying for the four remaining positions later this month.

The Qantas Socceroos of course will meet one of those nations, Saudi Arabia on February 29 at Melbourne-s AAMI Park, as Round Three concludes.

The draw for the next stage will take place at the Asian Football Confederation headquarters in Kuala Lumpur in early March where Qantas Socceroos fans will be anxiously awaiting to see which teams will attempt to block passage to Brazil 2014.

2007 AFC Asian Cup champions Iraq and four-time FIFA World Cup finalists Saudi Arabia could present a sizeable challenge but, according to the FIFA World Ranking, the four biggest obstacles in the way of the Qantas Socceroos and a third successive FIFA World Cup are Japan, Korea Republic, Iran and Uzbekistan.

Japan Australia have a strong historical record against Japan, which includes a hard-won draw away from home four years ago, followed up by a 2-1 victory in Melbourne which featured a memorable Tim Cahill double.

The history between the pair of course reached its zenith with that memorable win under a blazing Kaiserslautern sun on 2006.

Japan though seem to have improve with every passing year and their football is on a high at the moment, having been crowned Asian kings last year at the expense of Australia, not too mention the Nadeshiko winning last year-s FIFA Women-s World Cup, becoming Asia-s first senior world champions in the process.

A host of young starlets are forming the backbone of the new-look team having made the move to the German Bundesliga in recent years, with the likes of Shinji Kagawa and Shinji Okazaki achieving considerable success.

Korea Republic

The Taeguk Warriors have taken on a somewhat unfamiliar appearance in recent times with the team undergoing somewhat of a rebuilding process.

Results have been duly erratic, so much so that Choi Kang-Hee was appointed following the abrupt departure of coach Cho Kang-Rae late last year.

The South Koreans head into the final matchday at the end of the month needing a win to be certain of advancing. Failure is unthinkable, although in truth unlikely, and a home draw against Kuwait is their straight-forward equation.

The eight-time FIFA World Cup finalists are Asia-s best performed team on the world stage and were just a whisker away from reaching the quarter-finals at the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa.

The side may be short of star power with the international retirement of Manchester United-s Park Ji-Sung, but the notoriously resilient Korea Republic are underestimated by opponents at their peril.

Iran Both Iran and Australia have already qualified for the next stage and the mechanics of the draw mean that there is effectively a 50 per cent chance the two will be pitted together for the first time since that famous night at the MCG in November 1997.

A long-awaited FIFA World Cup qualification drought seemed certain to end for the Socceroos, only for Iran to somehow pull back two goals when all seemed lost, thus qualifying for France 98 by virtue of away goals.

The current crop does not have the same level of depth or experience but they are on undoubted upward trajectory under former Portugal boss Carlos Queiroz.

A glimpse of their growing quality was on display at last year-s Asian Cup with results improving further ever since. As always their imposing Azadi Stadium in Tehran - one of the world-s great football cathedrals - will provide a massive advantage, with Iran only twice suffering defeat within its cavernous confines.

Uzbekistan Two very different sides of Uzbek football were on display at last year-s AFC Asian Cup and such wholly unpredictable performances have invariably been a recurring theme for the White Wolves.

A team that is capable of drawing in Japan is also the same side that is capable of crashing 6-0 to the Qantas Socceroos, as happened on Australia Day last year. Nevertheless, Uzbekistan possesses a huge amount of x-factor, with several trump cards in their pack.

Leading the way is wily veteran coach Vadim Abramov who is also on the verge of leading the nation-s U23 to London 2012 at Australia-s expense. Though largely unknown to Australian audiences, Uzbekistan-s attacking aces are capable of unpicking any defence with the veteran Maksim Shatskikh, bald-headed dynamo Alexander Geynrikh and AFC Player of the Year Server Djeparov all forces to be reckoned with in the own right.