Turmoil looms large over Olympic football qualifying

UAE host Uzbekistan on Wednesday in one of the few Asian qualifying ties not being played out amid political tension.

Coach Mahdi Ali (Courtesy Al Ittihad)
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Asian qualifying for next year's Olympics gets into high gear this week with a double-header of games played against a backdrop of instability in parts of the Middle East.

Syria will play both their games away from home as fears grow of civil unrest and protests against the President Bashar Al Assad regime, injury-hit Australia's away tie with Iraq has been shifted out of the country over security concerns and Japan head to Bahrain who have endured political unrest.

Tuesday and Wednesday's games, followed by another six on Sunday, are the second and third installment of Asia's final qualifying round, with the top team in each of three groups gaining automatic berths at London 2012. The three runners-up will enter a round-robin for the prize of a play-off against a team from the African confederation.

The UAE, who are in Group B with Australia, Uzbekistan and Iraq, play the Uzbeks at Al Ain FC on Wednesday. Mahdi Ali's side are third in the group after recording a draw from their opening game with Australia. Al Wahda's Hamdan Al Kamali, Amer Omar, Salem Saleh and Adil Al Hosani have all been named in the squad.

Uzbekistan top the Group, South Korea, Asia's top-ranked Under 23 outfit, got off to a winning start in Group A against Oman two months ago, while Japan and Syria are level on points at the top of Group C.

Australia will try to bounce back from September's disappointing 0-0 home draw with UAE as they face Iraq on Tuesday in Doha, where South Korea will play Qatar a day later.

Aurelio Vidmar's "Olyroos" will take on the Iraqis, who are playing all their home fixtures abroad on orders on security advice, without striker Marko Jesic, who needs surgery for an ingrown hair.

The Newcastle Jets marksman has been replaced by Cameron Edwards, who plays for Reading in the English second tier. Australia will then return to Sydney to play Uzbekistan on Sunday.

"After drawing our opening match against the UAE we need to get a good result from these two matches to give us the best possible chance of qualifying for the Olympics," Vidmar said.

"With injuries to a number of players we have used in the previous matches, we've selected a few new faces following our recent training camp in Sydney," he told the Football Federation Australia (FFA) website.

"It will be up to these players to take their opportunity and step up to the challenge ahead."

Japan's game in Manama, scene of long-running political protests, on Tuesday will be followed by Sunday's visit from Syria, whose country is also in the grip of bloody upheaval with 24 protesters killed last week.

And media reports said Malaysia's team will fly home on a chartered plane from Jakarta late on Monday after their Southeast Asian Games final against Indonesia, to give their players some rest before facing Syria on Wednesday.

Men's football is played as an U23 tournament at the Olympics, although the rules allow for three over-age players. The group stage wraps up in March next year.