With Round 2 of the Asian World Cup qualifiers now over, here at SFG Towers, Martin Lowe and Tom Danicek got together and talked about the highs and lows from the last year on the continent with some early predictions of who looks strong ahead of the Round 3 draw on April 12th.
Which team surprised you the most?
There were a number of teams that I hadn’t particularly seen too much of prior to the round, which ended up achieving more than some had predicted, but ultimately, it wasn’t a round full of shocks.
One team that did live up to our expectations, and maybe exceeded them however were Syria. In our preview podcast last year, they were the team we clearly indicated to avoid in the second pot, and while Japan overcame them professionally in both their ties, the rest of the field were blown away by their relentless strike-force.
Sanharib Malki was the key cog for me between defence and attack, using all his experience to link with the likes of Mahmoud Al Mawas and Omar Khirbin, the latter of whom is starting to make a real name for himself. When you consider the turmoil that’s taking place back in their home country, they’ve been a real credit to the continent and should be worth an upset or two in Round 3.
I honestly don’t have a single team that have blown me off my seat. That’s not to boast about my knowledge or anything, but we simply all knew Syria and Thailand had it in them. Moreover, the smooth progression of the latter was arguably more of a result of Iraq’s implosion and Indonesia’s expulsion rather than the Thais’ own doing – after all, their sturdy, defensive approach could’ve easily cost them on some occasions.
While there were no absolute stand-outs in this category for me, there are quite a few teams that, to some extent, have indeed exceeded my expectations and arguably their own potential, too. That applies to the very competitive nations from Central Asia, Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan, as well as to the Chinese very own nightmare, Hong Kong (or should I say goalkeeper Yapp Hung Fai?).
Also, I think we should definitely mention Uzbekistan’s swift recovery from the turbulent regime of Mirjalol Qosimov. Samvel Babayan has quite impressively played to his stars’ strengths from the outset and the point return since his appointment is nothing short of spectacular; seven wins out of seven, 18 goals scored, just three conceded.
While they are admittedly my protégés at the same time, I am willing to put my credibility at stake here and seriously tip Sergeev, Rashidov, Akhmedov et co. to cause a few headaches to all the established powerhouses in Round 3.
Which team let you down?
As discussed before; for all its merits, this round had few if any real shocks. The one key team to miss out on Round 3 qualification however was Bahrain, who ended up well adrift, losing 5 out of their 8 group games.
From day 1 when the Philippines clinched victory over them in Manila, they looked without hunger to fight for the cause and it hardly got any better throughout the year.
We shouldn’t be surprised; as it’s been one terrible run after another, from the Gulf Cup in 2014 through their drab exit in Australia earlier last year.
I can’t see how Sergio Batista has lasted this long really, either I expected him to be sacked or to have walked out by now. The team lacks youth and energy, and threatens to become stagnant and rot in Round 3 if they’re not careful. The over-reliance on the old guard; the likes of Abdulatif and Aaif is getting too predictable, something needs to change if they have any chance of making UAE 2019.
There’s being a sleeping giant on one hand, and being totally rubbish despite your fine potential on the other. India, sadly, fall in the latter bracket – ever so convincingly, forcing everyone to question whether they are still bound to come good any time soon.
While Martin is (rightfully) surprised at Batista’s longevity in charge of Bahrain, I am equally stunned by the fact Stephen Constantine still remains the coach of India. One sole win, three points, just four different goalscorers, three really bad results and constant moaning about the poor state of country’s infrastructure – that should be the end of it, really.
Apart from India, surely you’ve got to at least briefly mention Iraq and the way how they’ve limped through to Round 3. Granted, they are being let down by the FA on a frustratingly regular basis and had quite a lot of notable absentees for the March qualifiers, but still – this wasn’t good enough by any stretch of the imagination.
Who was your pick for Player of the Round?
The standout players for me were the goal scorers of the round, in that regard it’s hard to look past Mohammed Al-Sahlawi who’s had a fantastic last year in Saudi Arabian green. 14 goals in 8 qualifying matches from a striker who’d been rarely used before is a fantastic achievement, which contributed wisely in his Gulf Player of the Year achievement.
It can be pointed out that eight of those goals came in two matches against East Timor, but he proved instrumental in nearly every other match also, including his critical brace at home to UAE which in the end enabled them top spot.
Despite such a rampant campaign behind them, I continue to see the flaws in Saudi Arabia’s game. Al-Sahlawi’s goals aside, the defence still scares me, and they continue to lack a regular option in support of the Al-Nassr striker. Without another monumental effort from their leading goal scorer I can’t see the Saudis’ gaining access to Russia.
We are not even done with admiring the accelerated ascension of Massimo Luongo, and yet, here we have another Aussie to drool over – probably even more intensely. Aaron Mooy, aptly compared to Andrés Iniesta by Martin about a year ago, really is a player Australia hadn’t had in their recent past.
His vision, timing of (typically breakthough) passes and set piece expertise are firmly putting him right on the continetal pedestal and it’s totally within his reach to climb even higher in Round 3. Mooy’s club form already can’t get any better, as he’s registered an unbelievable 12 assists since the turn of the year, and so if no European club comes knocking over the summer, SFG Towers will presumably explode. That’s how stunned we would unanimously be.
In Australia, by the way, you could easily identify another exciting prospect to look out for in the next round. Tom Rogić may not be as influential as Luongo and Mooy already are, but his first touch and cannon of a left foot are promising huge things going forward.
What was your favourite moment/match?
My resounding memories come not from the big teams in the stage but stories from those who sought to better their initial expectations.
Opening Round 1 at an ungodly hour, we previewed Guam-Turkmenistan as a potential diamond in the rough and we weren’t to proved wrong. A first ever qualifying victory didn’t only start the round with a shock but opened the already rich and diverse Asian football continent to one further nation further. A memorable moment for the team and viewer alike.
My other standout match was a much more one sided game in UAE’s 10-0 demolition of Malaysia. Over the last few years UAE have shown they’re always capable of scoring big and this was the clearest of examples; our player of 2015 Amoory particularly impressed with 5 assists.
It was on the other side where most of the attention lay however. Some pitiful defending and desperate managing (switching their keeper twice due to bad performance) really added to the drama on the evening but the real affect will be later felt in Round 3. Can this be the wake up call Malaysian football needed?
It was the afternoon I was repeatedly complaining about Al Kass for not showing Qatar – China, which luckily forced me into watching a much more entertaining encounter where neither North Korea nor Philippines looked like themselves.
DPRK had presented themselves like one of the best organized teams in the competition going into the last set of qualifiers, yet in that second half, they crumbled spectacularly after falling behind and turning the game around prior. Philippines, on the other hand, had been unable to score for five games in a row (grabbing only one consolation goal against Uzbekistan), yet in that second half, they showed some of the free-flowing football they fooled us with earlier in the qualifiers.
Ultimately, you could argue that both national teams finished the campaign as serious underachievers; both in their own way.
Furthermore, to pick one game from earlier also, I really enjoyed the Saudi Arabia – Palestine game in June 2015. Another frantic finish, another 3:2 score line, and the big introduction of a man called Mohammad Al-Sahlawi. I remember I was initially delighted for brave Palestine who equalized in the first minute of added time, only to end up being equally delighted for a newborn hero Al-Sahlawi minutes later.
Which teams look in the strongest position going into Round 3?
For me, apart from their wobble of a result in Jordan; Australia still look the strongest side in Asia. Since winning the Asian Cup, I wanted to see them break the next level and I think they’re finding their way to achieving it soon.
For me they’re the best team with and without possession in the continent, a team that can play in a number of different styles, who’ve been able to bed in a few younger players over the last year also.
The result sheet may not be spotless but I do think they’ve achieved more than necessarily South Korea or Japan have done this last year.
I cannot point to any other than the two teams that ought to be absolutely delighted (and we know Halilhodžić officially was) to feature in the same pot number 2 – Japan and South Korea. While Iran now boast probably the greatest depth and the best domestic crop in the whole Queiroz era, they don’t generate as much fear with the ever-present uncertainty surrounding the Portuguese coach’s future.
Meanwhile, Japan and South Korea bet on two of the most cunning and outspoken managers on the continent, whose teams are yet to let a single ball into their own net, while together accounting for a rather impressive 51 goals scored.
They do have their shortcomings, of course; Okazaki’s goal-scoring record, inspired by some mind-blowing wastefulness, can be seen as disappointing (four in seven) and South Korea have grinded their way to as many as three triumphs due to a similar concern. But as long as they keep it tight at the back, these issues can be easily accomodated.
Going forward, it will be interesting to see how the midfield line looks like for both powerhouses. Stielike enjoyed great success with Kwon Chang-hoon and Jung Woo-young alongside Ki Sung-yueng, but the former two didn’t feature in March (Kwon because of the upcoming Olympics and Jung probably due to leaving Stielike’s go-to country, Japan).
Vahid Halilhodžić, meanwhile, came back to the 2014 World Cup partnership of Yamaguchi and Hasebe last time out against Syria, still successfully delaying the somewhat inevitable integration of Wataru Endo and Gaku Shibasaki. With Usami also used as more of a squad player so far by the Bosnian, there’s much left to ponder about in the future.
Keep up to date over the coming fortnight, as Round 3 of World Cup qualification is drawn on Tuesday April 12, while the week before will see in the initial Playoff draw for Round 3 of Asian Cup qualification on Thursday April 7. Across SFG and Twitter, we’ll keep you up to date with all the reaction.