Yesterday saw Round 2 of Asian World Cup qualifying end in dramatic style, as the final 12 participants on the “Road to Russia” were confirmed as Iran, Australia, Japan, South Korea, Uzbekistan, UAE, Saudi Arabia, Thailand, China, Qatar, Syria and Iraq. Later in the week we’ll look back at the SFG Team’s highlights and lowlights of the round as a whole, but in the meantime Martin Lowe sums up the important talking points from the last week of matches.
Mixed week for new coaches
In pursuit of a place in the next round of World Cup qualifiers, a number of teams chose to dispense with their coach over the winter break in hope that a short term peak in performance from a new incumbent was all that was needed to see them through. It worked in some cases better than others as you can imagine.
The prize for the most impressive week undoubtedly goes to Gao Hongbo who took up the Chinese hot seat for the second time in his career replacing Alain Perrin at the turn of the year. Many in China had written off their chances after such a meagre campaign saw them fall 7 points behind Qatar in the fight for top spot, and significantly behind their peers in the Best Runners-Up race.
Gao promised a bounce in form, and while a 4-0 home victory over the Maldives in Wuhan was expected, it definitely gave them a lift as they prepared to host Qatar on Tuesday. A second half rally, which saw Huang Bowen and Wu Lei strike for China, ensured victory over the group winners, during which it was confirmed China had overcome the odds in toppling North Korea in the head-to-head stakes for a lucky loser spot to continue with World Cup qualification.
Gao’s future remains uncertain for now, China are through but in the most fortunate of circumstances. The Chinese FA may look to spend their money elsewhere on a big name overseas coach, but for the time being the immediate lift desired by Gao’s appointment was truly satisfied.
Elsewhere, Jordan and Oman went down the same route of managerial chopping and changing, with Paul’s Put and Le Guen losing their jobs after critical defeats to Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan respectively in November. Both would need to replicate China’s achievement of two wins from two, however this time against the top two in Asia, predictably it was a step too far for both.
The Jordanian FA surprised the world by appointing Harry Redknapp on a short term contract for this week’s two matches, and while he enjoyed a brief honeymoon initially, humbling Bangladesh 8-0 in Amman, they never looked in it against Australia going down 5-1 in Sydney.
Despite early indications that he may want to continue on as manager for the next round of Asian Cup qualifiers, Redknapp’s wearied reaction at the end of the Australia encounter suggests the JFA may have to look elsewhere. Damning criticism of the supposedly unfit players, (who he’d initially praised after the Bangladesh result), the backroom staff and the structure of the national team, indicates more is needed to be done to revitalise the squad’s effort to qualify for the Emirates in 2019.
Oman at least have appointed a coach on a longer term deal, former Real Madrid coach Juan Ramon Lopez Caro joined with at least one eye fixed on Round 3 Asian Cup qualification. Oman needed a miracle to turn around their goal difference even if they were to overcome Iran on Tuesday, in the end even that was too much of a stretch. Lopez Caro is in for a long and difficult job if he’s to amend a lengthy period of control bedded in by his French predecessor.
Tim Cahill remains Australia’s prime goal threat
The team selection over the Socceroos’ two qualifiers this week wouldn’t have surprised many given the calibre of opposition and what was at stake. Certain regulars were rested at home to Tajikistan, in their place a number of fringe starters some of whom paid dividends. Young Liverpool full back Brad Smith impressed enough to gain back to back starts, while Greek born Apostolos Giannou displayed another useful option in attack.
It has been the one area in which Australia and Postecoglou haven’t been able yet to replenish. Tim Cahill, now 36, by definition won’t be around for ever, it was assumed that his time could’ve been up even before the Asian Cup last year, with the former Everton man rebounding devastatingly in front of goal. Possible replacements have come and gone, with little to no one ever really replacing his impact on the pitch, at least over a sustained time period.
Giannou’s appearance against Tajikistan did offer some glimmers of hope that he could be the one to pass the baton onto. The tall striker, laid on four of Australia’s five goals, but cruelly missed out on a debut effort which his all round game deserved. For all his promise, that lack of finishing coolness still needs honing, which was put into context when Cahill, predictably returning for the big game against Jordan, scored twice before half time, with two expertly Cahill-esque headers, to put the game away from their opponents.
For now, Cahill remains the go-to big game striker Australia need, but in the run up to Round 3 where the level of opposition is much more consistent, he surely won’t be able to start every match? Postecoglou, with friendly matches against England and a double-header against Giannou’s motherland Greece in the summer, will undoubtedly switch it up in hope a suitable tandem is available ahead of the WCQ return in September.
Campaign killers’ the Philippines strike again to knockout North Korea
The Philippines have been one of the most attractive teams in the whole of qualification, but subsequently incredibly frustrating. From the heady days of a 2-1 win over the much fancied Bahrain on Match-Day 1, which proved the first nail in the coffin of the Gulf nation, to the 1-0 home defeat to previously winless and scoreless Yemen, the Filipinos have blown hot and cold throughout.
In contrast, Tuesday’s opponents North Korea have been unerringly consistent, only losing to Uzbekistan so far in the competition. A win for the Koreans pretty much guaranteed progression, while Philippines had little to play for, apart from in the dugout where American coach Tom Dooley was fighting for a contract extension. All-in-all Korea were strong favourites to move through to the next round of qualification.
Despite going behind, Korea lived up to expectations leading the game 2-1 until the last 10 minutes where they sought about imploding, with some haphazard, dare I say Filipino style attacking which left all sorts of space in behind which the home side took full advantage of, scoring two late goals that ended Korea’s World Cup qualification campaign.
This was supposed to be an illustration of North Korea’s new found consistency which had been missing at last year’s Asian Cup. For all their efforts earlier in the campaign, a sudden tactical cavern which emerged late-on on Tuesday well and truly cost them a shot at qualifying for Russia.
Iraq crawl over the line as Thailand fly high as one of the Round’s only shocks
Opening up the qualification process to the majority of the continent, was hoped at least in some of AFC’s press snippets to provide entertaining underdog tales of shock progressions and cruel exits, in the end despite a few isolated results that raised some eyebrows, those you’d expect to go through did. The only real exception to this was the table topping campaign of Thailand.
They were expected to compete against Iraq for top spot, but ultimately the West Asian nation, fresh off the back of a solid Asian Cup semi final campaign, were tipped to ease to top the pile. Two draws against Iraq ultimately proved Thailand’s proficiency against Asia’s very best, clinching the country’s first appearance at an Asian Cup since their home games in 2007.
While Iraq conspired against themselves off the pitch, it was Thailand who were their biggest obstacle on it. It was widely assumed, if Iraq brought their A-game they’d clinch two wins from two this week and win the group comfortably, but how wrong could they be? Thailand executed a solid game plan, not the most ambitious, but within their means of countering Iraq and using their dead-ball situations wisely. In the end both of their goals in the 2-2 draw came courtesy of set-piece deliveries by the ever-impressive full back Theerathon Bunmathan.
Iraq eventually salvaged safe passage through to Round 3, but they’ll look back on a number of fortunate events that helped them along the way. The fact that Indonesia’s expulsion allowed them to take advantage of their two ties against Taiwan in their head-to-head rankings increased their goal difference at the very least. Despite draws against Thailand and Vietnam earlier in the competition Iraq limped over the line with a solo goal against the latter on Tuesday despite the Vietnamese having little to play for. Much more is needed and indeed expected of Iraq as they go through to Round 3 in search of their 6th manager in under 2 years after Yahya Alwan was sacked after the Thailand draw.