The latest week of World Cup Qualifiers in Asia was the final batch of matches until March, so it was imperative that each of the remaining 12 nations ended their calendar year on a high. While some will remember this round for the shameful conditions in Malaysia as Iran were frustrated by Syria, Martin Lowe focuses on the football on offer elsewhere. We’re now half way through the final stage of qualification, with every side at least dropping points in two of their five matches, the Race for Russia remains as competitive as ever.
Thailand find resolve in historic point, as Australia slump to third successive draw
It’s been a solemn month in Thailand since the passing of King Bhumibol in mid-October which initially threw into doubt their home qualifier with Australia on Tuesday. After lengthy consultation the match went ahead and history will likely look back kindly on that decision, as the team and fans came together to put in an admirable performance fitting of the late King’s memory.
Despite going down early to a Mile Jedinak penalty, Thailand didn’t only equalise but turned the tie around full circle with a penalty of their own early in the second period to give them a well-deserved lead. Predictably the Asian champions put the pressure on in the closing half an hour, securing yet another (this time debatable) penalty, but in the end the hosts were the better side and could’ve nicked it later on.
The passion felt throughout the stadium was summed up on the final whistle, with manager Kiatisuk Senamuang breaking down mid-interview, overcome with emotion of the timing and the manner of the result. Occasion aside this is a campaign high for Thailand, their first point in the final stage that no one gave them any hope in. This has been rightly seen as a building block to better things; Asian Cup football is secured for 2019, sustained competitive football is guaranteed for another 5 games for their previously inexperienced side against Asia’s very best and they can use this to better prepare for this weekend’s Suzuki Cup, in which they travel to the Philippines as holders.
The plaudits will go to Teerasil Dangda, who scored both goals for the War Elephants on the night, but praise can also be extended across the pitch, especially in defence where keeper Kawin Thamsatchanan pulled off a number of solid saves, while wing backs Tristan Do and Theeratorn Bunmathan contributed at both ends of the field.
For Australia, this can’t be seen as a one off, given they’ve now drew their last three qualifiers and dropped down to 3rd in Group A, outside of a guaranteed World Cup place. They may remain one of only two unbeaten sides across the continent, however question marks remain over a number of factors across the pitch, namely their age old problem in attack.
Without the inform Tomi Juric to call upon due to injury, the Socceroos looked toothless, dare I say complacent in selecting Jamie MacLaren for his first competitive start in attack, emblazoned with the highly pressurised shirt number 4, that of the outgoing national team legend Tim Cahill. Given Juric’s last minute injury, the thought must’ve crossed Ange Postecoglou’s mind at the start of that second half that he should’ve gotten on the phone to his ageing stalwart who played for Melbourne City over the weekend, to at the very least be a notable option off the bench.
The runs in around the central striker remain promising, but ultimately ineffective. Matt Leckie was hauled off a minute after giving away the Thai penalty clumsily, while Robbie Kruse looked a whole lot better with his runs off the ball, than whenever he had it at his feet. The switch back to the 442-diamond after they went behind was a brave admission, that Postecoglou got it wrong against a well mastered game plan from the Thais, but it was too late to fully turn things around.
The only blessing for the Asian champions is that they only have in effect one away tie left in the final half of the stage. After facing Iraq at a neutral venue they play 3 out of their last 4 at home. Australia remain in my eyes the best squad on the continent, but in these sorts of tight matches they are still lacking that clinical performer to see them through.
Stielike clings on for another round
As the wave of ill-feeling continues to flow Uli Stielike’s way, his South Korea side bounced back to winning ways in spite of calls for his sacking, beating Uzbekistan 2-1 in Seoul. As has been the case in their previous Round 3 home encounters (3-2 wins over China & Qatar), it wasn’t a simple task, and needed another comeback to ensure the job got over the line but Korea’s class came to the fold again when it really mattered.
Aside to his general relationship with the media and the general fan base, Stielike’s brand of football has often been criticised. Again, this was a talking point. Possession, which was almost total, was impressive statistically but less so in reality, struggling to carve out the opportunities desired until later in the second half. The reliance on a target man sort of figure in attack, initially Lee Jeong-Hyeop and then Kim Shin-Wook later on, again stunts free flowing attacking play in the final third.
Saying that, persistence paid off and the goals came in the end, which they have in fairness done regularly during this stage. Nam Tae-Hee mirrored his domestic form with the opening goal, while Park Joo-Ho from left back had a hand in both efforts. The pressure on Son Heung-Min which has been raised given his form in the Premier League needs to be suppressed going into the New Year however, the Korean talisman looked again to be taking too much responsibility on in terms of forging out opportunities.
So for now Stielike stays. The question is with the results part of the agenda accomplished, will the media relations task be as successful in the coming months’ winter break?
Is this the end of the road for China and Qatar?
Despite being a match between the two lowest ranked sides in Group A, the encounter between China and Qatar was eagerly anticipated, in no small part for the home side’s debutant boss Marcello Lippi. A victory for either side would’ve pulled them right back into the hunt for a distant third spot playoff, but in the end neither could take advantage, in a laboured 0-0 draw.
China were by far the more dominant, but lacked the creativity to carve out any real clear cut opportunities. Most of the threat came from set-pieces, off the heads of centre back Feng Xioting and centre forward Zhang Yuning. When the promising openings came they were found lacking or missing out on luck. Jiang Zhipeng, one of China’s most impressive players on the day, lacked composure in his key moment, blazing wide a first half opportunity. Elsewhere, Zheng Zhi unluckily hit the post from distance, before Wu Xi had his header superbly tipped onto the framework by Saad Al-Sheeb.
There were plenty of glimmers of hope for Lippi to take from this encounter, but given they couldn’t find the decisive blow, they lie an insurmountable distance behind Uzbekistan in third. Starting three men in attack, was the bout of urgency China needed, but that doesn’t put aside the fact they lack attacking talent. Zhang Yuning, still 19 has the prospect within him to become a leading man in years to come, but this qualification stage has come too early.
As for Qatar, in the end they were happy to collect a point, after offering little in an attacking sense. They fell back to a defensive five, that nearly worked wonders in Seoul last month, and on the whole the defensive unit performed admirably. A special commendation to converted right back Pedro Correia who was a composed performer throughout on the left of the central trio.
However, the performance felt anticlimactic after the week that had preceded it, where Qatar beat Russia 2-1 in Thursday’s friendly in Doha. Maybe with the pressure off, Qatar felt free to pass it around effortlessly, creating some really incisive openings. No such play was demonstrated on Tuesday, with Fossati’s men gifting possession up almost willingly at times, happy to take the stalemate.
A draw hardly does them any favours either. They may remain 2 points ahead of their opponents, but it’s looking increasingly likely they’ll miss out on 2018 also. With Qatar hosting South Korea and China hosting Uzbekistan in March’s next batch of qualifiers, their destinies could be confirmed at the next given opportunity.