(Reuters) - Surprise early Asian pace-setters Guam and Hong Kong face daunting World Cup qualifying road trips to Iran and China on Thursday that will better gauge the progress the two minnows claim to have made.
Guam, a tiny U.S. territory in the Pacific Ocean, travel to Tehran talking of a possible upset against a side that thrashed them 19-0 in qualifying for the 2002 World Cup.
Buoyed by their first ever wins at this level in June -- 1-0 over Turkmenistan and 2-1 against India -- English coach Gary White believes his side, who top Group D, are ready to take on the three-times Asian champions.
"We know the size of the challenge we are faced with, up against a team that has won several Asian Cups and which has been a regular qualifier for World Cups," he told Pacific Daily News.
"(But) that's the position that we want to put ourselves in."
The fixture was in doubt at one point after Guam complained that Iran were delaying visa applications, requiring the Asian Football Confederation to step in and mediate.
Some in Hong Kong have also been angered ahead of their Group C fixture in China, with complaints that tickets for the Shenzhen clash have been made unnecessarily difficult to buy.
The fixture is likely to be a tense affair after Hong Kong fans booed the Chinese anthem, adopted by the territory in 1997, before they beat Bhutan 7-0 and Maldives 2-0 in June to top the group with FIFA warning of punishments if there is a repeat.
The tie has seen Hong Kong fans reminisce over one of their rare successes against China when they won a World Cup qualifier in Beijing 30 years ago, but China boss Alain Perrin is not expecting an upset nor five days later when they host Maldives.
"Our target is to collect six points in the two matches and to score as many goals as possible against the weaker teams," the Frenchman was quoted as saying by the South China Morning Post.
They are two of 15 matches taking place on Thursday in the joint 2019 Asian Cup qualifying campaign that has minnows and giants clashing but only the eight group winners guaranteed a spot in the second round of Asian qualifying for Russia 2018.
Four-times Asian champions Japan host lowly Cambodia, perennial World Cup qualifiers South Korea welcome Laos, Saudi Arabia, under the guidance of Dutch coach Bert van Marwijk for the first time, take on East Timor, while Asian champions Australia host Bangladesh.
Writing by Patrick Johnston in Singapore; Editing by John O'Brien