After a lengthy 4 month winter break, World Cup qualification returns to Asia this week, as we continue in the final round along the Road for Russia. The first half of WCQ Round 3 was enthralling, a welcome change from some of the quite one-sided encounters of Round 2. There were a few shocks to start us off, but in the main the regulars in terms of World Cup qualification are there or thereabouts, in place to put themselves a clear distance from the rest of the field over the coming week.
Of the 12 matches taking place this coming Thursday and Tuesday, none pit any of the top 3 nations from either group against one another. Subsequently this could be the round we effectively say goodbye to half of the field, as we knuckle down to the final strides towards automatic qualification and the tumultuous playoff stage, no one is really looking at as an acceptable avenue at this point.
Alongside the return of elite Asian national football in World Cup qualification, comes the resumption of Asian Cup qualification, remember that? The one we started two years ago, and haven’t seen in any action for nearly 12 months,? That one. While there may have been a lack of competitive action for those involved (aside from those who qualified via the playoffs or inadvertently through the Solidarity Cup in the Autumn), the new qualification format on the whole is trundling along quite nicely, evident by an interesting Round 3 group stage draw which offers up a number of intriguing questions as the field narrows down ahead of UAE-2019.
The week looks set to be competitive at the very least, with the vast majority of Asia taking part in some sort of competitive game-play against similarly ranked nations, something we’ve rarely had the opportunity to witness in the past, so we should give the AFC some credit. With so much to pick from, here’s a selection of the areas of interest to look out for over the coming 7 days.
Confederations Cup looms, but Australia need to return to winning ways
Rewind some 9 months, and Australia were seemingly strolling through to a third successive World Cup since joining the Asian confederation. But then came the draws, that have left a tinge of doubt hanging over whether the continental champions of 2 years ago can repeat their continual feat and automatically qualify for Russia. The draws in themselves, in isolation are far from terrible results; a 2-2 draw away in Jeddah against an inform Saudi Arabia, was followed by a 1-1 draw at home to Japan, before an emotionally tinged 2-2 draw in Thailand against a team who upped their game in the wake of mourning over the death of their monarch.
The fact is however, three draws in succession hasn’t helped their qualification cause, dropping them to third in the leaderboard, back into the mix of a competitive top 4 group that are now separated by only one point. Australia, like no other know the pitfalls of having to negotiate the intercontinental playoffs, something that was a necessity back in their OFC days, so to finish 3rd this time around and potentially face up to the likes of the United States in the World Cup shootout isn’t a prospect Ange Postecoglou will be relishing at present.
The once assumed, still expected World Cup qualification campaign is now to be precariously played out either side of Australia’s trip to Russia for the Confederations Cup this summer, a competition Postecoglou would’ve hoped to have been played out with the Socceroos having one foot in the World Cup the following summer. Any dropped points this week against Iraq (in Tehran) and UAE (back in Sydney) will put greater pressure on their squad going into June, given they’ll host leaders Saudi Arabia days before they head off to Europe.
One of the most tactically flexible coaches in Asia, Postecoglou has made tweaks to the system and personnel throughout, and March looks no different. A couple of new faces have been brought in; right back Rhyan Grant has been one of the standout players in Sydney FC’s record breaking season, while Riley McGree will inject youth and unpredictability into the squad. There are also a couple of notable returns; with James Troisi returning to national team duty for the first time in over a year, conveniently timed to replace the injured Tom Rogic at the tip of the midfield diamond, while Perth Glory’s Rhys Williams is recalled to potentially play a part in an experimental back three.
One area that hasn’t been messed around with too much is in attack, where Postecoglou returned to selecting Tim Cahill and Tomi Juric as the squad’s only out and out front men, after both missed out on the last call up due to fitness concerns. Their experience was considerably missed in November’s trip to Thailand, where Brisbane Roar’s Jamie Maclaren failed to live up to expectation in a lone front role. A return to the usual attacking blend is expected, which’ll no doubt include Bundesliga based Matt Leckie working in tandem with one of the two strikers. With qualification on the line, despite the sprinkling of fresh talent, it’s back to the tried and trusted once more in attack.
Saudi Arabia lead the way, but can they stay out in front through March?
Saudi Arabia remain the silent assassins of Asian football. Top of their group at the halfway stage of qualification with arguably the two easiest opposition on paper ahead of them this week, it makes you wonder why it is that we’re not hearing more of their chances of making it to their first World Cup since 2006?
Whether it be a case that everyone assumes, come the latter parts of qualification that Japan and Australia will be too much for Saudi Arabia, something that on current form looks far from a certainty, or what is more likely is that many don’t expect Saudi to keep up their current run of form which has been highly impressive. While they jointly sit, albeit on goal difference, atop Group B, it could’ve been so much more after losing their last match in Saitama against Japan in November. They were far from outclassed that day, not helped out by some unfortunate officiating, overall they held their own against the Samurai Blue.
That’s been the case for much of their campaign, they’ve generally performed well against the top ranked sides. Their strongest performances have come against the aforementioned Japan, Australia and UAE, the latter the statement result of the last year. The two matches to forget however were their opening victories ironically against weaker opposition; slim victories over Thailand and Iraq, the very two opponents set before them this week.
Saudi Arabia performed meekly over both, and while they’ll vehemently protest against their treatment by the officials in Japan, they can’t say it doesn’t even out over a campaign, after receiving 3 penalties over the two matches, two of which were soft to say the least. In Riyadh against Thailand, they dominated possession without offering any end product, while in Malaysia, they were run ragged by Iraq, who should’ve been 3 or 4 up by the second half, where the nominal hosts eventually ran out of steam and ultimately luck.
The Thailand prospect this Thursday offers up a test to put to bed a question mark over Saudi’s abilities to end a tie effectively against a technically weaker side, who’ll expectantly be on the back foot, initially looking to counter the Middle Easterners. Thailand however are a rising force, finishing 2016 on a tremendous high after drawing with Australia in WCQ and clinching yet another Suzuki Cup. Their fortunes have been replicated in 2017, excelling domestically in the Champions League having Muangthong United (where much of the national team ply their trade) clinched some eye-catching results against some of Asia’s top performing clubs.
Much of Saudi Arabia’s success since Dutchman Bert van Marwijk took the helm has come through quick incisive wing play, with Nawaf Al Abed and Fahad Al-Muwallad particularly thriving in the first half of the campaign. Van Marwijk has opted to do without the latter who hasn’t featured since being sent off against Al-Hilal at the beginning of the month, while captain Osama Hawsawi is also out, this time through suspension for the match in Bangkok. The plus side however can be found in the form of their strikers; Nasser Al-Shamrani and Mohamed Al-Sahlawi who both notched up braces in January’s battering of Cambodia. A similar free flowing attacking performance is expected over the coming week if the Green Falcons expect to stay on course for Russia.
China to use ACL experience to become giant killers?
It’s been another productive off season in Chinese football, with global stars being drafted in for big money, with big expectations attached to them but the early signs are that it’s starting to pay off. An unbeaten start in the Champions League for all three Chinese Super League clubs suggests their continental domination may just be around the corner, but the resulting impact on the national team continues to be a long way off.
While the overseas stars are clearly headlining CSL team performances, the CFA’s ludicrously late changes to foreign player limits have shifted the focus back somewhat on to the domestic product. In the early weeks of the ACL and indeed since the resumption of the domestic league, there have been some quick returns to form for some of China’s big names; the likes of Wu Lei of Shanghai SIPG, Wu XI of Jiangsu Suning and Zeng Cheng and Zheng Zhi of Guangzhou Evergrande are all domestic talents that have impressed in the early stages of the ACL and will continue to form the spine of Marcello Lippi’s national team setup.
The area in which Lippi’s continues to be lacking in, is the next generation. Despite domestic rule changes surrounding U23 players (CSL clubs must now start at least one U23 player domestically), this latest call up only features two players under 25, one being Zhang Yuning, currently playing in Holland, the other being Deng Hanwen, currently playing in the Chinese second tier. The rushed legislation in hope that a greater exposure of league minutes for young Chinese players is an admirable one from the CFA, however without stipulations concerning their formative years and the early signs that clubs will substitute said players at the earliest convenience leaves the initiative clearly in it’s infancy.
Another initiative which also failed to take off was the introduction of the China Cup in January. Granted FIFA competitive status, the promise of an A-grade international tournament running outside the FIFA calendar was always going to be difficult to achieve, and in the end it was a format that arguably didn’t benefit anyone. A set of second string squads saw China struggle to impress on home soil against a similarly below par Iceland and Croatia. Lippi may have taken away a couple of plus points from the tournament in terms of preparation and tactics, but on a personnel basis, this week’s squad call up was hardly altered.
China have little chance of challenging for a place in Russia, either in terms of points or generally the quality of their current squad. The latest round of qualifiers taking in the visit of South Korea, before jetting off to Iran can’t have drawn them against tougher opponents, meaning either scheduling the perfect testing ground for a new look Lippi side or setting up yet another embarrassment on the continental scene. The only claw-back they may be able to take is their club’s achievements on the continent of late, but it’ll be much more difficult to replicate such quality in the national team, when you lack the goals of Hulk, Ricardo Goulart and Alex Teixeira.
All eyes will be on the man in the middle come Thursday’s encounter between UAE and Japan in Abu Dhabi, for the anticipation of a penalty kick to be awarded to the Emirati hosts. For the last two matches involving these two have been decided by a delicate Panenka style penalty delivered duly by UAE’s star men; Omar Abdulrahman (in 2015’s Asian Cup quarter-final penalty shootout victory) and Ahmed Khalil (in last year’s World Cup qualification Round 3 opener). Many will deride the impact of such the nonchalant risk of chipping the ball down the middle from 12 yards, but the way that both occasions have shaped this battle for supremacy has had a lasting effect due to it’s mockery.
Abdulrahman is hated for his act of “disrespect” in Australia, and Khalil can expect the same treatment this time around, ever greatly rubbed in as Japan exited their qualifier with a bitter taste in their mouth after some (yes, more) questionable officiating. Expect for this relatively new rivalry to be finely poised for another fiery bust up or controversial decision, as much more is on stake here than merely bragging rights.
UAE have it all to do in March. While all their rivals have at least one match they are heavy favourites for, UAE host Japan before heading to the continental champions Australia on Tuesday – no easy task to keep your qualification hopes alive. The fact is these matches have to be played sometime, and you couldn’t be playing both Asian juggernauts at a better time, with both going through a stuttering spell of late. For an under pressure Mahdi Ali, the writing is likely to be on the wall as we enter April; overcome the challenge and he’ll be guiding a side to a prime run-in and a historic World Cup appearance, fall to two defeats and he’ll likely exit stage right.
Vahid Halilhodzic in the opposing dugout will be another man to keep an eye on over this period, that being said Halilhodzic to this day continues to command the Japanese media, and any sniff of a potential managerial exit would likely be on his terms. His frustration bubbles away on a regular basis, with every squad reveal, with every lengthy interview, he continues to leave little to the imagination, never falling short of pointing out his side’s flaws or his frustration when it comes to the domestic league.
That being said, on paper Japan have selected once again a fearsome squad, especially in attack. From 2016’s star player Genki Haraguchi (the one man that seems to fit Halilhodzic’s ideal) to November’s man of the month Hiroshi Kiyotake, you can add in there the inform Yuya Kubo, Bundesliga regular Yuya Osako and now Shinji Okazaki who is back in the starting lineup for an improving Leicester City.
A host of attacking players, and this doesn’t even include the big two; Keisuke Honda and Shinji Kagawa. Talent aside, both were duly dropped from the Saudi victory in November, and their winter performances domestically (the former in particular who has barely featured for Milan) leaves a question of whether they’ll feature again from the bench in the Emirates. Do they dare go with fluidity and form, pace and directness, or do they go with experience offered by their underperforming duo? With a late injury to captain Makoto Hasebe and with Kiyotake lacking substantial minutes since returning to Japan with Cerezo Osaka, it might be an initially cautious selection from the Samurai Blue.
Asian Cup qualification resumes
It’s nearly been a year, but Asian Cup qualification returns to the fold with the Round 3 group stage. The draw has opened up a pretty even field, supplemented by the odd surprise package, such as Nepal and Macau who qualified via the inaugural AFC Solidarity Cup last year. It wouldn’t also be an AFC competition, without controversy either, and we’ve on cue received it with North Korea’s match against Malaysia having to be postponed due to high political tensions that the confederation were keen to sidestep.
The biggest tie of the opening set of fixtures, which kicks off on Tuesday sees one of Round 2’s most impressive stories head to an arguable sleeping giant of West Asian football. Hong Kong are experiencing a promising upsurge that has now stretched into the new year. From back-to-back draws against China in the last round of qualifiers, domestic champions Eastern having picked up the underdog batten with verve, already clinching a home point against Japanese side Kawasaki Frontale in the Champions League.
In the home corner Lebanon are a side looking to compete at an Asian Cup for the first time in nearly a decade. Round 2 was a stage of nearly moments, characterised by their opening defeat to Kuwait. This is a side that has the players to on occasion compete with the very best in Asia, but too frequently they succumb to the odd lapse performance, finishing the stage with a 1-1 draw with Myanmar. Group B looks one of the most open in the draw, with Lebanon and Hong Kong being slotted in alongside a worthy North Korea side that very nearly made Round 3 of WCQ and Malaysia, who are an unpredictable opponent who have a number of dangerous weapons in their armoury on their day. The opening round of fixtures will likely give a flavour of what we can expect over the coming 12 month round robin.
Elsewhere, expectation is high for the likes of Oman and Jordan. Regulars at the Asian Cup in recent editions, the fact they failed to reach Round 3 of World Cup qualification was a telling blow to their future development, setting up a no-win situation in the final round of Asian Cup qualification. While it’ll generally be a testing ground for future prospects, home fans will find it hard to generally take much out of a group stage draw, which at worst is an unwelcome banana skin, but should be easily navigated as they hone in on a tournament that is still 2 years away.