SINGAPORE (Reuters) - Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Bahrain can put the disappointment of 2014 World Cup failure behind them by becoming the first three sides to navigate their way through Asian Cup qualifying on Friday.
The hosts automatically have a berth as do holders Japan and third-placed finishers in 2011 South Korea courtesy of their performances four years ago, while North Korea will be present having won the Challenge Cup for emerging Asian nations.
Bahrain face Malaysia in Manama on Friday, confidently predicting they will join them despite having been surprisingly held 1-1 by the Southeast Asians in Kuala Lumpur last month.
Bahrain, though, will have to contend without key defender Hussain Baba as well as midfielders Sayed Dhiya Saeed and Abdulwahab Al Malood for Friday's clash.
The Bahrainis then take on Yemen at home on Tuesday with head coach Anthony Hudson predicting progression from Group D with positive results from the two games which the country's Football Association have made free for fans.
"We want to secure our berths in our next two games, which I am confident we will," the Englishman said earlier this month.
Bahrain top the group on seven points from three games with 2022 World Cup hosts Qatar occupying the other qualifying berth in the group on six points. Malaysia are third on four with Yemen looking for their first point when they take on Qatar on Friday.
In Group C, three times winners Saudi Arabia have won all three of their matches to sit top ahead of their match against 2007 winners Iraq on Friday.
Iraq are third in the group and need a positive result with second placed China, buoyed by the success of Guangzhou Evergrande who won the AFC Champions League last week, eyeing three more points when they host bottom side Indonesia on Friday.
China then host the Saudis on Tuesday with their final match away to Iraq, who play home qualifying games in Dubai, looking like the key match to decide who joins the Saudis in Australia.
Group E is also being controlled by a Gulf nation with the UAE also boasting a 100 percent record ahead of their fourth match of the campaign at home to Hong Kong.
Victory will book a place in Australia with a second chance of securing a berth also available on Tuesday should they need it when they host Vietnam.
The Southeast Asians have lost all three of their matches but an unlikely victory at home to Uzbekistan on Friday can thrust them back into the qualifying picture.
The central Asians are in second in the group on four points, level with Hong Kong.
In Group B, Iran, who have qualified for 2014 World Cup finals face two away matches over the next four days in Thailand and Lebanon as they look to secure a place in Australia.
Syria take on Singapore in Group A trying to keep pace with Oman and Jordan.
(Reporting by Patrick Johnston; editing by Amlan Chakraborty)