WCQ: What to expect from the week ahead in Asia?

Whatever your thoughts are from Thursday’s generally one-sided set of matches, what we can all agree on is that it doesn’t downplay a set of inducing matches this coming Tuesday.

While we’ve already looked at the key clashes between Lebanon & Korea Republic and Thailand & Iraq, we take a more broader look now at the remaining talking points here with Martin Lowe and Middle East expert Hamoudi.

Don’t ignore the bigger picture when assessing Thursday’s results

On a day where we saw 12 home wins from 15, a whole 73 home goals scored, for 3 against, as an outsider you’d be forgiven in thinking that the Asian confederation is broadly uncompetitive. And sadly, that’s how the AFC have been perceived this last week after a thoroughly one sided round of matches thoroughly skewed plenty of football observers’ view of the continent. But the outcry of calls for the format to be scrapped, only months into its first version, have split opinion even inside the Asian footballing world.

Two aspects need to be considered; firstly this was always likely to happen when you schedule the top 8 sides in Asia at home against the weakest 8 all on the same day. The results were admittedly big, Qatar’s 15-0 win over Bhutan especially, but if these obvious big boys vs. minnows’ ties had been cleverly arranged by the AFC, their affect would’ve been suppressed slightly.

The second and most important point is that this is early days in the admirable pursuit of an improved footballing climate across the continent. Years before half of these sides, the “emerging nations” (as AFC labelled them) would be spared any competitive football against Asia’s regular elite. While this made for less mismatched encounters, it led to little improvement amongst these lower ranked sides. The now defunct AFC Challenge Cup illustrated the absurdity of this idea of qualifying nations separately. Korea DPR and Palestine both qualified for 2015’s Asian Cup as Challenge Cup champions without having had experience against the continents very best, predictably leading to 3 defeats from 3 for both national sides in Australia.

The improvements across the board desired by the confederation will take years, possibly decades to be fully realised. In the short term however you can already see those green shoots appearing. Those mid-ground sides, who are expected to be on the back foot against the elite Asian sides, but conversely on the front foot against the lesser ranked sides in the continent, have now a good year of competitive football to develop both their attacking and defensive sides of the game which should better prepare them for eventual Asian Cup qualification.The likes of Thailand, Guam and the aforementioned Korea DPR have within the few first few game weeks benefited from this, as they have already shown a greater competitive edge against the established order.

For those who were humiliated so comprehensively on Thursday, observers are advised to look towards Europe for inspiration. The likes of the Faroe Islands and Luxembourg have started to pick up credible results in qualification after years of competing in this format. This can prove hope to the likes of Malaysia (defeated 10-0 by UAE on Thursday), given the higher standard of their infrastructure already in place, in terms of league development. The East Asian’s average domestic wage far surpasses anything the part-time European minnows have experienced, which suggests greater competition can only be just around the corner with more intensive action. This is a long road, let us not be so quick to say it’s not working when we’ve barely set off.

The Philippines’ diaspora recruitment drive is starting to pay dividends

When we talk of those nations who have benefited from a change of format in qualification, the Filipino national side have to be right at the top of that list. They were previously seen as a big fish when competing at “emerging nation” level or regionally within the South East Asian championships, but all too often lacking in those few experiences when taking on the bigger nations in the continent. With an increased chance of qualification for the Asian Cup now open through the new AFC format, a different tact was required and the Philippines surely have upped their game.

While other similarly sized footballing nations (India springs to mind) grossly under use their vast diaspora around the globe, the Philippines extensive hunt for players of Filipino heritage has crucially increased their abilities on the field. The recruitment of the likes of national hero Phil Younghusband, experienced Bundesliger Stephan Schrock and Spanish born hotshot Javier Patino have all excelled since their introduction into the national squad, with the latter inspiring them to early successes in World Cup qualification.

A greater calibre of player of course doesn’t instantly improve the results on the pitch, but that has come through the integration and organisation of American coach Tom Dooley. After promising stints in the AFC Challenge and ASEAN championships, the real progress has kick started this summer with back-to-back opening World Cup qualifying victories over Asian Cup regulars Bahrain and a defensively stubborn Yemen.

The real attribute of their play this year has been their speed on the counter, which has been exceptional from the very start of qualifying, a terrifying prospect for any defence especially a side undergoing serious rebuilding. As Tom Danicek has analysed over the last week, Uzbekistan are a pale representation of their former selves as they seek to reconstruct a national squad full of inspiring young starlets. An away trip to Manila to face an in form Philippines team wouldn’t be their number one location to go at present, but at this early stage could prove a highly defined moment in their World Cup qualifying campaign. One to watch for sure come Tuesday.

Time to change for Mahdi Ali and the UAE?

All is not well in the UAE national football team despite the resounding win against Malaysia and another 3 valuable away points against the essentially well-oiled East Timor. Yet it is not the caliber of the opposition that seems to be the topic here, and how the UAE are easing past them. It is based on the fact that Mahdi Ali’s selections have become dull, predictable and ineffective at times.

Players from Al-Shabab, Al-Nasr, Al-Wahda, Baniyas and Al-Wasl are being rejected for the bigger names in Al-Ain and Al-Ahli. Sure, the team prepared by Mahdi Ali since the age groups pre-2012 has been going to plan yet the inclusion of Al-Ain full back Mohammad Fawzi – a player even questioned by his own fans – over players such as Manei Mohammad, Abdulaziz Sanqour and others has become a weak point for the revered engineer.

It is time for the UAE to move away and build on the current form over the bigger names in the squad. These come in the form of Mohammad Abdulrahman, Mohammad Fawzi and Ismail Ahmed (Al-Ain) plus Ahmed Khalil (Al-Ahli). The irony is that where the UAE possess their most promising players – Majed Hassan and Habib Fardan – is where they are stacked the most: defensive midfield. Amer Abdulrahman and Khamis Esmail are inseparable as a pair, a creator and a destroyer respectively.

The defensive line of the UAE is a cause for concern with South Korea effectively destroying it in a pre-WC Qualifier friendly. Mohanad Salem is a mainstay albeit for his deteriorating performances since his Asian Cup masterclass, meanwhile Al-Ain partner Ismail Ahmed is despised amongst the Emirati fan base for his lacklustre performances.

Palestine can take their chances here, only if they can successfully break through the unheralded double pivot of the UAE. This can easily be done via bypassing the pair to a physical striker, who needs to be adept at working the channels and bringing runners inside. A route through to the in-form striker Sameh Maraaba may well be the home side’s initial starting point.

Bahrain’s struggles continue

While fellow Gulf nations have started to gain some momentum over the last year, Bahrain have been left floundering and in somewhat of a no-man’s land in terms of expectation. Should they be competing with the likes of Qatar and UAE as the next generation of opponents challenging for progression to Round 3 and the chance to fight for a World Cup spot? Or should they be setting their ambitions slightly lower at mere qualification for the Asian Cup? In recent months, neither has looked a realistic target as Bahrain currently lie bottom of their qualification group, remaining winless under current boss Sergio Batista.

Bahrain’s luck when it comes to group draws hasn’t exactly been great however. Following up tough draws at the previous Gulf and Asian Cup competitions, they were once again selected in the famed “Group of Death” in World Cup qualification. Their resulting performances in such matches however haven’t exactly warranted sympathy. Despite promising results over Qatar (a Gulf Cup draw & an Asian Cup victory) and a stunning friendly victory over Saudi Arabia (all be it over a weakened XI), their form has generally been flaky and lacking that crucial cutting edge. Under Batista, a well-known name with a wealth of experience, this was supposed to change, but all early indications seem to point to the same-old Bahrain, failing to get the job done.

The frustration seems to have finally trickled down from the fans to the dugout, as Batista erupted after their loss to North Korea on Thursday. “The players lacked confidence and played the match with the wrong attitude.” His no holds barred approach to player criticism could be seen as a well needed rocket up the back side, but some blame must be attributed for his over tinkering. As Tom reacted to on Twitter earlier this week, Batista’s over rotation of his squad over the two official matches he’s been in charge can’t exactly instill consistency.

As they prepare for Yemen (a side that too often frustrate them) on Tuesday, a match they must win if they have any real hopes of Round 3 qualification, they’ll likely be sweating on the fitness of key creator Faouzi Aaish and the returning form of bullish centre forward Jaycee John to keep their campaign afloat. Batista’s honest rallying cry straight after the match in Riffa may have been an early indication that all is not well behind the scenes, which raises questions whether the Argentine can ride out the rest of the year in his current position.

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