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 By Rob Brooks

Japan hosts Australia in what could be Asia's definitive World Cup qualifier

ESPN FC's Jason Dasey and John Wilkinson look ahead to Japan's clash against Australia in AFC World Cup qualifying.

"To make it to such a prestigious tournament, you have to beat the best."

Tim Cahill's words on Fox Sports echoed out in anticipation following the draw for the third round of 2018 World Cup qualifiers.

As Asia's top nations were separated into two groups in April last year, it became clear that Group B would be largely defined by the clashes between the two most recent champions of the continent -- Japan and Australia. In particular, the match in Saitama on the penultimate matchday always loomed as decisive. And so it has come to be.

Thursday's qualifier is likely to determine the fate of both nations on the road to Russia. A win for Japan will see the Samurai Blue safely qualify for their sixth straight World Cup.

The Socceroos, meanwhile, need at least a draw to ensure they can still automatically go through as one of the top two teams in the group. Ange Postecoglou's men would still need to defeat Thailand in Melbourne next week, which is far from guaranteed given their 2-2 draw in Bangkok last November.

It's all to play for as Asia's top two teams vie for a place on football's biggest stage.

History, for what it's worth, is certainly on Japan's side. They are undefeated against the Socceroos since 2009, and have never lost to Australia on home soil.

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However, that won't play on Postecoglou's mind for a moment. Far more important for Australia's coach is the performance his charges put on against Chile in the Confederations Cup during their last outing. That match, which ended in a 1-1 draw, demonstrated that playing with a 3-2-4-1 formation could, in fact, work in the Socceroos' favour -- at least in difficult-to-win matches away from home.

With captain Mile Jedinak still missing through injury, Jackson Irvine and Mark Milligan are expected to be called upon in midfield, with the in-form Aaron Mooy -- and potentially Tom Rogic -- to also be included in the starting XI.

Indeed, flexibility in midfield is the key to this crucial qualifier. Whether the Socceroos' midfielders can retain possession for extended periods will play a huge factor in them being able to hold out the impressive firepower of Japan.

Mooy's ability to win the ball back and instantly become a fulcrum in attack is pivotal in this plan. The Huddersfield man is Australia's finest player, and is their best chance of starving the likes of Keisuke Honda and Shinji Kagawa of meaningful chances by preventing cheap turnovers.

Japan, meanwhile, will be more motivated than ever to get a win over their fierce rivals. With a final matchday clash away to second-placed Saudi Arabia still to come, Vahid Halilhodzic and his players will be anxious to seal qualification this week. To do so, they will lean heavily on veterans such as skipper Makoto Hasebe, whose battle with Mooy promises to be one to watch.

They may be without Italy-based full-back Yuto Nagatomo -- veteran of two World Cups and an Asian Cup winner in 2011 -- who limped out of Inter Milan's 3-1 victory over Roma at the weekend.

Aaron Mooy vs. Makoto Hasebe
Japan's Makoto Hasebe and Socceroos star Aaron Mooy will go head-to-head in midfield.

Fail to deliver at home, however, and Halilhodzic could face the axe, with many in Japan convinced that even a draw in this game could be reason enough for the Japan Football Association to severe ties with the Bosnian coach.

That is not a prospect the Samurai Blue will want to consider. Slipping to third, and missing an opportunity at automatic qualification, would be unthinkable. There lies a two-legged playoff against either South Korea or Uzbekistan, potentially followed by another two matches against the fourth-placed side in CONCACAF -- which could yet be the United States.

That scenario, though, is exactly the proposition facing third-placed Australia as it stands. Their qualification form has been unconvincing to this point, but it would almost be forgotten if they can salvage a positive result away to the most talented national team in Asia.

Australia, the reigning champions of the continent, must once again show that they can match it with the best this week, as the pressure of qualification reaches its climax.

Any result -- win, lose or draw -- will have huge implications for both sides. National heroes can be made and villains created. Every moment can alter the outcome, and every outcome has great consequences. This is everything that makes the World Cup, and its qualifiers, so compelling.

Rob Brooks writes about Australian football and the A-League for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter: @RobNJBrooks

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