We’re two matches into the final round of Asian World Cup Qualification and we’re already starting to predict those who are ultimately preparing for the 2019 Asian Cup rather than a jaunt to Russia in 2018. The coming batch of internationals promises to be of the highest profile since the last Asian Cup edition in 2015, with the top 4 in Asia playing one another this coming Tuesday. Martin Lowe casts his eye over these matches amongst others across the coming fortnight in the Asian international window.
Fossati steps in to rebuild Qatar
Uruguayan Jorge Fossati has taken over the reins of the Qatar national team, replacing fellow countryman Jose Daniel Carreno after his side began Round 3 of World Cup qualifying with back-to-back defeats against Iran and Uzbekistan. Fossati’s immediate challenge sees them having to travel to face South Korea before a home tie with Syria this coming week, with few believing that Qatar can quickly bounce back and make a decent fist of challenging for World Cup qualification.
This represents Fossati’s second spell as Qatar boss after coaching them between 2007 and 2008, a stint cut short through illness. He returns in a similar manner to that of when he first arrived; previously leading Al Sadd to the Qatar Stars League title. This time around he comes in as reigning QSL champion once again after matching the feat with Al Rayyan earlier this year.
Al Rayyan have been one of the most impressive teams in West Asia over the last year, following up their promotion from the second tier with the national league title in March and by some clear distance, 14 points clear of their nearest rivals El Jaish. He was credited with resurrecting the career of Sebastian Soria in tandem with recently naturalised striker Rodrigo Tabata in a devastating front line, something the QFA will no doubt be keen on replicating as he joins a national team who tend to struggle in front of goal in big games.
The change in coach at this stage wasn’t too surprising, but the longevity of this appointment can be questioned. 2018 now looks a distant dream, maybe not mathematically but on the pitch Qatar are still a clear distance behind the elite in Asia. So with 2018 plans shelved, a home World Cup in 2022 becomes the clear priority. After over a year of speculation that a bigger name such as Marcelo Bielsa or Jorge Sampioli would be drafted in, some Qatari fans may wonder if Fossati is merely a temporary fix.
It may instead be a statement of intent that they’ve promoted from within rather than from outside in terms of their long term plan. It was assumed the 2018 campaign would utilise the older generation, the majority of whom are nationalised overseas players to attempt to get Qatar over the line, before reverting to a promising generation of youth in the run up to 2022. Fossati’s experience with the former method at club level indicates this could be a short term change while a fixed way forward can be established if and in all likelihood when Qatar exit this round of qualification.
His first squad mirrored that of the outgoing Carreno (Mohamed Tresor excluding, thankfully for us) so the young in Akram Afif, Almoez Ali and Boualem Khouki remain alongside the old in the aforementioned Soria and Tabata. It’ll be interesting in these first couple of matches what changes will be made to the current set up and whether short term stabilisation is preferred to long term revolution.
Can Son Heung-Min replicate his club form with the national team?
It’s been one of the most high profile stories of the European season so far; the rapid escalation in form of Tottenham Hotspur’s Korean star Son Heung-Min. His displays which have seen him become directly involved in 8 goals over his last 7 Spurs’ matches, however, look to have come at the expense of South Korea who were set on the back foot last month by his absence.
Son started and starred as South Korea beat China 3-2 in September, with the striker having a hand in two of the goals in a contributing wide left role. However, ahead of the away trip to Malaysia to face Syria, Son returned to London in preparation for Spurs instead of Korea. An unusual move on the face of it, but one that has come to fruition through a blossoming relationship between club and country which saw Son take part in the Rio Olympics, outside the official FIFA calendar.
Either way Korea assumed their match against Syria would’ve been a foregone conclusion, with or without Son, something that didn’t materialise as they were held to a frustrating 0-0 draw. Son’s early flight home did however help his personal cause, returning with a brace that coming weekend for Tottenham, a match he’d have likely missed out on if he had stayed with the national team longer.
This time around, no such luxury will be afforded to his club side. With crucial matches against Qatar and Iran to come, Son won’t be spared and he’ll be looked to even more now to spur Korea forward in their World Cup qualifying campaign. While a draw against Syria has hardly put them a clear distance behind the pack, any more dropped points this month could have more than a few sweating on what had seemed to be a likely task of qualifying for 2018.
Japan travel to Melbourne in the first real make or break match of the round
Defeat to UAE in September, their first at home competitively since 2012 immediately brought up some unerring stats that didn’t promise much for Japan’s hopes of qualifying for a 6th World Cup in succession. An Asian team has never qualified for the World Cup after they’ve lost the first match of the final round of qualification. Now that is a tad more startling than it needed to be, given the format has evolved quite a bit over the years, nevertheless it’s a worrying start.
Japan’s performance in their victory over Thailand the Tuesday after was hardly much better, considering they were playing against one of the weakest sides in their section, but the points were gained at least. This next round of qualifiers however looks a different proposition. Home against Iraq, Japan will likely be playing attack v defence, after the Iraqis did the same in Australia last month, but assuming they can find their way through this, the forthcoming match against the current Asian champions could prove pivotal in both team’s qualification scenarios.
A win for the Socceroos, assuming the Thursday matches go as expected, would see a comfortable 6 point gap between arguably the best two teams in Asia, a safe passage for Australia would be expected from then on, leaving a tough fight for the last remaining qualification spot or even to settle for a playoff looking to be the challenge for the Samurai Blue. Japan look a distant guise of their usual dominant selves on the continent, something that doesn’t seemed to have been helped by their coach’s outbursts off the pitch.
Bosnian Vahid Halilhodzic has been openly critical of many aspects of Japanese football ever since he took charge in March last year; from the generic mentality of the players and supporters, through the way the media reports on matches, to the lack of quality in the domestic league. His bullish style was instantly heralded as fresh and exactly what a stagnated national team needed, but the fact the same critical behaviour has continued 19 months down the line, could lead you to ask – has it got to the stage where this is counterproductive?
In the opposing dugout on Tuesday, Australian coach Ange Postecoglou couldn’t be in a more contrasting position. Entrusted with a similar task, in instilling a new way of playing, a new chapter even in Australian football. Postecoglou has seen all sectors of the game buy into his new philosophy, without the same conflict which has occurred between Halilhodzic and Japan. Australia have the feeling of a unified squad, while Japan continue to have the look of a regular work in progress that just does enough to get by.
Australia v Japan on Tuesday will no doubt be billed as the biggest match on the continent since the Asian Cup final nearly 2 years ago. A home victory for the Socceroos would clearly send a signal of continual change at the top of the Asian footballing hierarchy.