While Thursday’s AFC action left a lot to be desired in terms of genuine and consistant competition, Tuesday from the outset sets up at least a few real tasty top of the group battles.
The Group F headline fight between the contrasting plights of Thailand and Iraq screams for your attention, and that call we will heed as Martin Lowe looks at the rising form of last year’s Suzuki Cup champions Thailand while Hassanin Mubarak looks back on a tumultuous year for Iraqi football.
Thailand leading the South Eastern charge
One of the benefits put forward when the AFC announced their plans to expand the Asian Cup from 16 to 24 participants was that of spreading the game across the continent as a whole. One area which would’ve been central to this idea, was that of South East Asia. While we’ve seen the rise and continual high performance from nations within the Gulf, the Arab region, the East and most recently from Australia we are yet to see a challenge being put forward by the vibrant South East.
This cycle threatens to be different, with high hopes and promising starts from the likes of the Philippines, we should be confident of at least one candidate for 2019’s Asian Cup representing South East Asia. However, two matches in and we are already looking at two key matches, in particular Thailand’s hosting of Iraq to see if a South East representive can make it to Round 3 and possibly make a real fist of qualifying for the World Cup.
This is a pretty alien concept for the Thais. Yes, they’ve been to the Asian Cup before but not since 2007 and have never really looked like ever qualifying for the World Cup. With a change of emphasis needed, an astute change of management was required; step forward national team legend Kiatisuk Senamuang. A record holder of both appearances and goals, Kiatisuk would immediately win over the fans which would in theory sweep the team through their preparations.
Of course such inspiration from the supporters wasn’t necessarily needed as the team themselves are looking like some of the most interesting prospects for some time. Kiatisuk’s first task since taking over from the well travelled William Shafer (who’s working wonders with Jamaica at present, a worthy note to take ahead of the intercontinental playoff, I’m getting ahead of myself) was to secure the AFF (South East Asian/Suzuki) Championship, something they haven’t achieved since 2002 despite their prominence in the region.
Let’s just say that record was quickly extinguished with an impressive, progressive display culminating in victory over Malaysia. Thailand were top dogs in their region and ready to take a wider view.
Their form since the turn of year has equally had many re-evaluating their potential. Their opening victory over rivals Vietnam put them straight in the box seat, perfectly complemented with another win against Chinese Taipei leaving them secure at the top of the group standings. Their form has also stretched to decent results against West Asian opponents, as last week’s victory over Afghanistan illustrated, Thai football is adapting and preparing for the challenge ahead.
Some may point to their lack of depth in attacking areas, with their trust being flung too often to striker Teerasil Dangda, who remains their greatest threat inside the box. However the growing importance of Kroekrit Thawikan, who was inspired in their Suzuki Cup win alongside a number of other players on the up could prove Iraq with more than a few problems.
Whatever the result on Tuesday, South East Asia are well and truly back on the footballing map, and under the young, hungry Kiatisuk, Thailand are leading the charge.
Pressure’s on new coach Alwan
Only 38 days into his tenure as Iraq coach, Yahya Alwan could be facing an early wield of the axe if his team return to Baghdad with a defeat in Bangkok. His predecessor from earlier in the year Akram Salman was even under pressure despite only being in charge a few months from a section of the media before they were comprehensively dispatched by Vahid Halilhodžić’s resurgent Japanese side in Saitama.
Yahya Alwan hasn’t had it easy since he was belatedly appointed on August 1 after Bosnian Dzemal Hadziabdic’s unexpected last minute U-turn. In that short space of time Yahya has been involved with a tug-o-war with former Iraq coach and current Al-Shurta trainer Hakim Shaker over the release of their players. Yahya wanted them at the national team training in Doha, but Hakim, in a war of words with the FA president, insisted that the players would only be released 72 hours prior to a full international match. The coach in his first statement of intent dropped all Al-Shurta players, including Iraq’s first choice keeper Jalal Hassan. Veteran Nour Sabri, the 2007 Asian Cup winning goalkeeper, is therefore back in goal for Iraq.
At the training camp in Doha, a makeshift Iraqi selection were beaten 3-1 by Qatari champions Lekhwiya – a defeat which saw the Iraqi media lambast the Iraqi side for losing to a club side. In a second game the Iraqi FA were only able to organise a warm-up match with an amateur team dubbed ‘the Qatari Stars XI’ which Iraq beat only 2-0 with goals from Mohanad Abdul-Rahim and veteran Younis Mahmoud.
In the coach’s first test in Saida against Lebanon, the new-look Iraqi side – missing half their key starting XI – went into the half-time break 1-0 up, but two goals in the space of three minutes from the home side saw the game turn on its head.
Yahya Alwan made five quick changes and a debut goal from his Olympic player Ali Qasim followed by a last gasp header from Alaa Abdul-Zahra saw the former Talaba trainer victorious in his first official game in charge.
Days later at the PAS stadium in Tehran, designated the home venue for the Iraqi side for the World Cup qualifying campaign, around 4,000 spectators were able to catch a glimpse of Iraq’s usual selection, with the addition of Serie A new-boy Ali Adnan and Dhargham Ismail. But Iraq were without English-based midfielder Yaser Kasim only jetting into Iran 24 hours prior to kick-off – hoping that a last minute bid could come in for him before the British transfer window closed.
Kasim didn’t feature in Iraq’s comfortable 5-1 victory over Chinese Taipei, which saw Ali Husni and Justin Meram open their accounts for the Lions of Mesopotamia, the latter coming after Iraq’s much-criticised captain Mahmoud graciously handed the ball over to the Columbus Crew man to coolly slot the penalty home.
The next game against group leaders Thailand has already been seen as a must-win match by some observers after Kiatisak Senamuang’s side’s opening two victories placing them six points ahead of Iraq before Yahya Alwan’s side had even kicked a ball in the qualifiers. With Indonesia out of the qualifying group, some in Iraq feel that they cannot drop any points if the Lions of Mesopotamia want to qualify as group winners.
However history is not on the side of Yahya Alwan’s men, Iraq haven’t beaten Thailand on Thai soil in almost half a century. Their last victory came during the 1968 Olympic qualifying campaign, where Iraq won 4-0. Since then Iraq have failed to win any of their last six visits to Thailand.
Iraq cannot afford a slip-up in Bangkok, which could leave Iraq’s World Cup qualification in the balance and the Iraqi FA looking for another coach, their fourth in under a year!