Club football has packed up bags and gone on it’s summer holidays, meaning only one thing; the return of International football – World Cup qualifiers, big name friendlies and within a fortnight the Confederations Cup. Before we get there, the first task being the Race for Russia enters the final three matches of the campaign in Asia, including the possibility of a first side from the region guaranteeing their place in Russia at next summer’s World Cup. Martin Lowe assesses the biggest talking points in Asia ahead of crucial international week.
From Messi to Amoory – Bauza steps in for Ali
For the first time in 5 years, UAE are set to play with a new manager in the dugout when they return to World Cup qualification action on Tuesday. The incoming Edgardo Bauza, last employed by the Argentine national team, sets about the challenge of reinventing a side with considerable talent, to build towards a home Asian Cup in less than 2 years time, while in the meantime keep fans’ spirits alive at a possible clawback in World Cup qualification.
For many Emirati fans, the mere fact we won’t be seeing a red cap being adorned in the technical area should be enough to generate some hope. Mahdi Ali’s record for the national team was impressive, bringing through a golden generation of players, expected to compete at the top level of Asian football, but ultimately the results soured. While he qualified initially for the London Olympics, Ali’s crowning glory came in 2015 where UAE finished 3rd in Australia at the Asian Cup, however since then their performances and results have stagnated.
March’s defeat to Australia looks to have ruled them out of even a playoff shot at qualifying for Russia. If they were to still claw it back, they’ll need a spectacular collapse from their opponents, plus a miraculous upsurge in form of their own, neither on current form looks likely. Bauza’s priority initially then will be to win round the crowd, this will start with their first assignment away in Thailand to a national team under new stewardship themselves.
The formation and tactical plan are the first areas to be dealt with. UAE’s predictable 442 formation and locked in personnel under Ali, worked wonders in isolation but lacked flexibility when struggles came their way. As under Ali, the pursuit to get the very best out of their magical trio of Omar Abdulrahman, Ahmed Khalil and Ali Mabkhout will be essential going forward. The obvious avenue is to get the former as central as possible where he is given little responsibility to track back, something from the flank of a 442 under Ali he was tasked with quite often.
Given the quality in the first 11, you’d forgive Ali for resisting rotation, but something extra is needed to provide that extra spark, be that a substitute cameo or for a new star to emerge over the two years. Domestic young player of the year Khalfan Mubarak seems to fit the bill, someone coming into the squad with a different mindset and that sense of naivety under pressure that could work wonders when Abdulrahman’s on form. With a slim chance of making up ground on those ahead Bausa could do much worse than to shake things up from the get go.
Iran set on qualifying for Russia
Victory on Monday against Uzbekistan will clinch Carlos Queiroz’s Iran a World Cup spot in Russia next summer, the first side to do so from Asia. While they’ve gone about their work without too much fuss, a side that is unbeaten within competitive 90 minute play since the last World Cup and a defence that hasn’t conceded a competitive goal in 17 months, Iran have proved they are streets clear on the continent.
For anyone considering Iran as a decent bet to have a promising World Cup however, may been warned to wait and see, as we’re reminded that the Iranian Football Federation and coach Carlos Queiroz can quickly mess things up, with 12 months to go to organise themselves the most appropriate preparation. Unlike others, notably from East Asia, Iran have regularly called up mid-season training camps that have usually ended in more controversy than useful preparation time on the football pitch.
Over the last 12 months, the numbers of Iranians playing top flight football in Europe has raised, so the normal practice of ignoring the FIFA match calendar should quickly go out the window too. Their usual negligence to top flight friendlies seems to be turning (all be it like an oil tanker), taking on Macedonia on Monday, they came away with a hard fought victory and valuable experience they rarely were subjected to ahead of the last World Cup.
The other area of concern is personal frictions. Queiroz is now regularly known for putting in his resignation only to revert back days/weeks later, while his relationship with some Persian Gulf Pro League teams and their coaches has been less than smooth. Grievances with champions Persepolis’ coach Branko Ivankovic meant he excluded their players for a time last year, and similarly this year he’s culled all Esteghlal players from his June squad call up, after they fell to a humiliating defeat to Al Ain in the Asian Champions League. Football in Iran is far from dull, but for the time being it’s proving to be successful on the pitch.
Saudis out to spoil Australia’s Confederations Cup send off
Over the coming weeks we’ll be focusing our efforts firmly behind Australia, as Asia’s representative at the Confederations Cup in Russia. One aspect that has a great role to play in our analysis is what happens in the lead up, in arguably the most important match for them this June when they host Saudi Arabia in their World Cup qualifier on Thursday.
Saudi Arabia are more than capable, even if Australia turn up in form, of providing an almighty upset. We’re widely assuming that the race to automatically qualify out of Group B is going to run through to the bitter end, however if the Green Falcons can secure all three points in Adelaide, they move to 6 points ahead of the Socceroos with 2 games to play, as near as you like to returning to the World Cup, for the first time since 2006.
What Bert van Marwijk has achieved is incredible, on a mental standing above anything else. Any follower of Asian football knows the quality Saudi Arabia possess, but long the question has been; why can’t they perform on the big stage, be it in World Cup qualifiers or at the Asian Cup? This team now has focus to play as one, rather than a series of individual cameos. At home they’ve found their groove, since moving to Jeddah from Riyadh, while on the road, where they usually found themselves wanting, have put in some admirable displays away at Japan and most recently in Thailand (no easy task as Australia can attest to).
Many have questioned their coach’s determination between call ups (he rarely sets foot in the region outside of international windows), however what he does within those periods he’s obviously doing something right. Inspiring the best out of attacking wizard Nawaf Al-Abed is a tough task on it’s own, but to find a winning formula to dovetail with Yahya Al-Shehri to supply Mohamed Al-Sahlawi (who isn’t letting up from his record breaking 2015 year), you’ve got a winning attacking setup that can threaten anyone.
The worry with this campaign, is that it can quickly unravel. Defeat in Australia would leave them level on points with the Socceroos’ going into the final two matches against leaders Japan and UAE (a side who theoretically could still leapfrog them into a playoff spot). This game is by no means a pressure off moment, the nation will be watching, but if they’re able to at least get a point at the home of continental champions, they’ll have a relaxing summer holiday ahead of them.
Syria are plotting a fairy-tale ending to World Cup qualification
One of the most talked about stories of this round of qualification has been the success story of the Syrian national team. The fact that a war torn country, exiled to play their “home” games over 4,500 miles away from their homeland progressed to this final stage of qualification for the first time in their history is impressive on it’s own, but to have already picked up draws against Iran and South Korea, while beating China and Uzbekistan, Syria could well be in for a quick chase for a remote chance of heading to Russia.
Their temporary home has had a lot to do with their success of late. The hobbly bobbly, sometimes waterlogged Kampung Padang Siapong pitch in Melaka has been greeted with disdain by any side unfortunate to slip up there. The Syrians have played the conditions to their advantage, often soaking up (no pun intended) possession and hitting on the counter, through the coming of age Omar Khribin, who’s developing into a ready made star in the Middle East, the diminutive but characterful Mahmoud Al-Mawas who scored the winner away in China and the colossus Ahmad Al Salih anchoring their defensive line.
If this tight unit needed any more assistance, then who else should appear from the wings other than Omar Al-Somah.? The continental star, who’s scored 73 goals in 67 league games in Saudi Arabia for Al-Ahli has yet to play competitively for the national team after long being embroiled in a tug of war between national associations plus his own feelings towards the civil war back in his homeland, but has now indicated that he’s ready to join up with the national team in their late push for Russia.
Al-Somah’s return has been put on ice for the time being however, after picking up an injury in the last few week’s of the domestic season, a cruel blow that’ll put back his national team debut until at least August. With matches against the bottom two China and Qatar in Melaka in their next two however, they can immediately put pressure on a lacking Uzbek side above them going into the final furlong, Al-Somah or no Al-Somah. It’s been a scriptwriter’s dream already, the question is; can they plot their own course for a potential movie deal by going one step further?