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Stakes high for Koreas in qualifier

THE derby clash between South Korea and North Korea today will overshadow a round of World Cup qualifying matches that could result in Australia securing the first of Asia's four automatic places at South Africa 2010.

Any meeting between the Koreas is eagerly awaited. This time, the stakes are high, on and off the field.

After just two meetings in 15 years, the teams have met four times in the past 14 months. All four have ended in draws but today's match will be played amid an atmosphere of real tension ?? and not just because the World Cup is so close.

Little separates the two in Group B of Asian World Cup qualifying. North Korea, aiming for a first World Cup appearance since its run to the quarterfinals in 1966, leads the group with 10 points after five of its eight matches.

South Korea, the 2002 World Cup semifinalist bidding for a seventh consecutive visit to football's showpiece event, has eight points from four matches. Saudi Arabia's 2-1 win at Tehran on Saturday lifted the Saudis into third on seven points, one ahead of Iran. United Arab Emirates has just one point.

"We can certainly win this game but in the end, we will go to the World Cup together," North Korea's star striker Jong Tae Se told SportalKorea. "I get the impression that South Korea are becoming a younger team but they still have veterans like Park Ji-sung who have the mentality that they will never give up."

"But we are improving," Jong said. "It's true that they have many foreign (based) players but it can be difficult to summon them all and get them playing together. We don't have the same problem."

Many of South Korea's overseas stars were in action last weekend and warmed up by defeating Iraq 2-1 in a friendly match. On the same day, North Korea defeated UAE 2-0.

It was another impressive performance by the North, which belied its reputation as a defensive-minded team with some clinical attacking play.

North Korea was brimming with vigor and evolving as a team, South Korea's news agency, Yonhap, reported in a commentary.

"Compared with before, North Korea is attacking more aggressively," said South Korea coach Huh Jung-moo.

"We intend to break through and get behind North Korea's defense...," he said.

Manchester United star Park Ji-sung knows it won't be easy.

"North Korea is a well-organized team. The fact that it is in first place is not something to be especially concerned about though," he said. "More important is that if we can play in an organized fashion that we can get a good result. That is important as the group is getting tighter."

It will become more so if, as expected, Saudi Arabia defeats UAE in Riyadh.

The situation in Group A is much clearer. Japan is top of the standings with 11 points from five games after a 1-0 win over Bahrain at Saitama on the weekend.

Australia has one point less after playing one game less and will become the first team to qualify for the 2010 World Cup from Asia if it wins at home against Uzbekistan and the match between Qatar and Bahrain ends in a draw.

Uzbekistan, Bahrain and Qatar all have four points and are vying for third place and a play-off spot.

The top two teams in each group will progress to the World Cup. The third-place teams will meet for the right to enter an intercontinental qualifier.

Australia captain Lucas Neill just wants the win and is unconcerned at growing criticism over the Socceroos' perceived dour and defensive soccer style which has evolved under Pim Verbeek.

"I'll take a 1-0 win in the 95th minute, that is all I'm worried about," Neill, the West Ham defender, said. "I'm not worried about goals and how we please the crowd.

"The best way to entertain you and please you is to tell you we are in the World Cup; the only way to do that is to get points - it doesn't matter how we get them."

Neill was part of the Australian squad that enhanced its international reputation by reaching the second round of the 2006 World Cup, where it lost in a contentious, last-minute penalty to eventual champion Italy. That was Australia's first World Cup appearance since 1974.


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