The last two places at the World Cup finals will be decided this week, with Australia, New Zealand, Peru and Costa Rica digging into their stamina reserves for do-or-die battles.
Both international playoffs are single-leg showdowns in the Ahmad bin Ali Stadium in Doha, a 40,000 capacity venue that will host matches in the World Cup finals in the autumn.
Australia take on Peru on Monday. New Zealand face Costa Rica 24-hours later.
All four nations are used to the last-chance scrap for a World Cup place.
Four years ago Peru beat New Zealand 2-0 to clinch a slot at Russia 2018 where they beat Australia in the first round group – their first World Cup win in four decades.
Graham Arnold’s Australia are looking for a fifth straight appearance at the finals, but they needed playoffs for two of the past four and in 2006 that meant a penalty shootout against Uruguay.
Peru are ranked 22 in the world, 20 places above Australia, who beat United Arab Emirates 2-1 in the Doha stadium last week to reach the final playoff.
But Arnold plays up the Socceroos’ “underdog” status and says he has driven a never-say-die psyche into the team.
“We like people saying that we have no chance and we cannot achieve anything,” he said after the UAE win secured with an 84th minute Ajdin Hrustic goal.
“You know sometimes you don’t play well but you can still win by fighting and running, and chasing and being aggressive and that also can be a success.
“Fight, scratch and do whatever you have got to do to win the game. However we win it, who cares? Just win it,” said Arnold, who will be without injured key striker Adam Taggart.
Curses and crowds
Peruvian shamans have put ritual curses on the Australian team and government workers have been given a special holiday to watch the match that midfielder Edison Flores says “is the most important of our lives for many years”.
Whoever wins will go into World Cup group D with a daunting first game against defending champions France on November 22. They will also face Denmark and Tunisia.
The winner of Tuesday’s game goes into an even tougher Group E against Spain, Germany and Japan.
Costa Rica, who have played in five finals, are favourites against New Zealand who are aiming for the third appearance – their first since 2010.
Halfway through their 14 group matches, Costa Rica had only six points and they needed an unbeaten second half – including victories over the United States and Canada – to get into fourth place in the Central and North American group contest and the playoff.
Costa Rica have battled up to 31st in the world rankings in that time, while New Zealand are 101st.
“People may think that they (New Zealand) will be an easy opponent but it’s not true. They are a strong team who like to counter-attack,” said Danish-based veteran defender Bryan Oviedo who warned against complacency.
New Zealand lost 1-0 to Peru in a warmup match in Barcelona last week – their first game in front of a crowd since November 2019 because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“We learned a hell of a lot,” said coach Danny Hay.