DURBAN, South Africa: Australia, China and Asian champions Iraq were drawn together in a 'group of death' for the 2010 World Cup on Sunday, meaning at least one will not get through qualifying.
From an initial 41 teams, Asian representatives have been whittled down to 20 with the first and second in each group from the third round progressing to the fourth and final round on the road to South Africa.
Joining Australia, China and Iraq in Group 1 are Asian Games champions Qatar.
Japan, arguably the football power on the continent and a team that has qualified for the last three World Cups, will take on Bahrain, Oman and Southeast Asian powerhouse Thailand in Group 2 when qualifying starts on February 6.
Korea Republic, Asia's most successful team on the world stage having qualified for the past six World Cups, face a trip to neighbouring Pyongyang after being pitted with arch-rivals DPR Korea in Group 3.
Korean Republic, who made the semi-finals in 2002 on home soil, will fancy their chances of making their seventh finals with Jordan and minnows Turkmenistan also in their group.
Saudi Arabia, the losing finalists to Iraq at the Asian Cup earlier this year, will face Uzbekistan, Lebanon and tiny Singapore, who have never been this far before.
In the final group, Iran, whose credentials remain strong despite a number of senior players reaching the end of their international careers, take on Kuwait, United Arab Emirates and Syria.
Group 1 threw up an intriguing scenario.
Australia are still learning the ropes of how football is played in Asia after their shortfalls were exposed in their inaugural Asian Cup in June where heat sapped their strength and they failed to make it past the quarters.
Their task of making their second successive World Cup -- they qualified through Oceania for Germany in 2006 -- has been made harder with long trips to face Qatar and Iraq.
Both matches are likely to be in Doha given the security situation in Baghdad.
China also has plenty to prove, as one of the region's underachievers.
They had a taste of the World Cup in 2002 but has never quite lived up to expectations since.
Asian champions Iraq will be in South Africa for the Confederations Cup in 2009 but whether they can return the following year will depend on whether new coach Egil Olsen can unite the team.
According to goalkeeper Noor Sabri, "there is chaos within the technical staff and squad", leaving the Norwegian with his hands full.
But he is hugely experienced, helping his home nation qualify for the World Cups in the United States in 1994 and France four years later.
And at least Iraq has a coach, in contrast to Australia, South Korea, and Iran who are all rudderless.
Asia's best finish ever at a World Cup was in 2002 when South Korea finished fourth in the continent's first ever hosting of the showpiece event.
And they have an excellent chance of making the finals again.
Japan, whose Ivica Osim had a stroke earlier this month, should top their group, with Thailand facing a test of their character against Oman and a tough Bahraini side.
Saudi Arabia and Uzbekistan will be favourites in their pool, but Group 5 is more open with Iran, Kuwait, UAE and Syria all capable of progressing.
The winners and runners up from each group move to round four where they will be split into two groups of five with the first and second placed teams qualifying for South Africa.
Group A: Qatar, Iraq, China, Australia
Group B: Thailand, Oman, Bahrain, Japan
Group C: Turkmenistan, Jordan, DPR Korea, Korea Republic
Group D: Singapore, Lebanon, Uzbekistan, Saudi Arabia
Group E: Syria, UAE, Kuwait, Iran