WCQ: Iran qualify as those around them stumble towards the finishing line

There may have only been one match day in this round of World Cup qualifiers in Asia, but it made up for its lack of matches with plenty of drama, intrigue and debate, that has resulted in us knowing our first qualifier for Russia 2018. It also sets up a nail biting end to what has been a pretty open qualification race, where in one group every nation still has a sniff of qualification. With plenty to digest Martin Lowe and Tom Danicek look back at the key points from the last week’s action.

Iran qualify in style as Asia’s standout side

While Group B remains open for automatic qualification, in Group A we were granted Asia’s first qualifier for next year’s World Cup, as Iran confirmed what has been the writing on the wall for some time now, romping home to guarantee their place in Russia with a commanding 2-0 win over Uzbekistan on Monday evening.

For Iran, qualification has rarely been in doubt; undefeated since the very start of this final round of qualifiers, Iran have now gone 19 months of competitive football without conceding a goal, already looking at least a few notches ahead of the side that qualified for Brazil 3 years ago. Yes, their continental success has come broadly from the best defence in Asia, but almost every aspect of this squad, from back to front has improved tenfold in their pursuit to outperform their previous best in 12 months time.

Carlos Querioz becomes the first coach of Iran to qualify for back-to-back World Cups, on both occasions they have done more than meekly scrape over the line. Ever since a defensively adept, but ultimately pointless campaign in Brazil, Iran haven’t lost a competitive 90 minutes of football (their penalty shootout defeat to Iraq in 2015’s Asian Cup being their only competitive taste of defeat). In that time Iran have developed a number of attacking talents, ensured representation in some of Europe’s top leagues and without the odd hiccup, harnessed a better schedule of preparation (as last week’s trip to Macedonia can attest to).

In Brazil, they were hamstrung by a lack of resources in attacking areas, pundits tended to define them as a defence first setup they had to openly rely upon. Three years down the line they have a wealth of talent the whole of Asia wish they could call their own; Sardar Azmoun is one of the most sought after attacking talents in European football this coming transfer window, Karim Ansarifard is set to feature in his debut UEFA Champions League campaign next year with Olympiacos, while Mahdi Taremi, despite returning to Iran after an ill advised move to Europe last summer, looks to have a point to prove when he pulls on the Team Melli shirt, scoring for the 3rd qualifier in a row against Uzbekistan.

Much will depend on the draw they are given, which knowing Asia’s standing in the game, is likely to be weighted against them. The surprise factor will make them an unpredictable beast however, aside from Azmoum, who is likely to become a well-known talent before 2018, Queiroz’s side will be written off ahead of proceedings. This can only play into the Persians hands as Asia’s greatest hope at competing at next year’s showpiece event. Given the alternatives, we sure hope they can continue this form on! ML

Japan fail to increase cushion as Group B sets up for a last dash three horse race

This last week’s match day did little to clear things up in the chase for World Cup qualification from Group B, as the top three closed within a point of each other going into the final two matches of the schedule. Australia survived a  first half wobble to edge past Saudi Arabia in Adelaide to draw all three sides level, before Japan threw away a 1-0 lead to clinch only a point in Tehran against Iraq, missing the chance to gain some real breathing space going into August.

Australia were the clear winners of the round, clinching the required three points at home before they head off for this summer’s Confederations Cup, but it was far from an easy pursuit. Saudi Arabia came with the perfect game plan to target the Socceroos’ defensive weakness, pressing early and hitting in behind a retreating back line. The pitfalls behind such a system saw Saudi go in to half time level, when they really needed to be in front, as the second half slump in energy came.

Talent alone, Saudi stood up to the test and proved to themselves that World Cup qualification is more than a mere pipe dream. With a potential home showdown with Japan on the final day, they’ll be better suited to play in front of an expectant Jeddah crowd, with little to lose, as the other two’s expectations remain sky high.

Those very expectations seem to be hanging heavy around the neck of Japan at present, who were widely assumed to clinch the required 3 points in Tehran on Tuesday to widen their gap at the top of the group. A sluggish effort, which in the end wasn’t helped by some appalling defending from the previously inform Maya Yoshida gifted Iraq a way back into it. Aside from Iran, Asia looks weak when it comes to the crunch in matches they should be putting away, as we said in our coverage yesterday; it’s Iran and then the rest, it’s very hard to stipulate between the chasing pack.

It does however give us a blockbuster ending, involving two matches pitting two of the top three against one another. Japan who have to play both – first Australia in Saitama before travelling to Saudi Arabia, know one win will take them through, while their competitors know matches against UAE (for the Saudis) and Thailand (for Australia) are far from gimmees, with the former still clinging on to a distant hope of a playoff spot. ML

Pressure increases on Stielike as Korea’s qualification hopes take a hit

Remember when South Korea looked genuinely solid under the guidance of a former Real Madrid defender and finished the previous round of World Cup qualifiers with an impressive goal balance of 27:0? Yeah, I know…

The foundations have been destroyed almost as if that was the plan all along and back in came the familiar chaos we all witnessed in Brazil three years ago. Japan have barely progressed; Uzbekistan are suddenly unable to attack… but South Korea’s outright decline is still the most shocking of all.

Up until the 2015 Asian Cup, Kim Young-gwon’s contribution to the national team had been doubted and arguably undervalued, because it can hardly be a coincidence that the defensive line has crumbled in the absence of the ball-playing centre back who only started against Syria in this final round and – surprise surprise – oversaw a rare clean sheet.

With Kwak Tae-hwi and Jang Hyun-soo yesterday, there was an ever-present sense of confusion. “Do I man mark, or do I defend zonally? I would rather do neither, partner.” Ultimately, Kwak’s game-reading ended up being suspect all night long (his ill-advised rush out of the line is at fault of the winner) while Jang spent most of the game – and especially the early stages when South Korea struggled to retain possession – just hoofing the ball forward, once again somehow thinking he could be the Korean Pirlo.

Without Kim Young-gwon, the South Korean defence is anything but composed, which isn’t being helped by any of the fullbacks either. Kim Jin-su has regressed dramatically since the impressive Asian Cup showing, channeling his frantic self above all, while Choi Chul-soon made every KNT follower wish even a freaking Kim Chang-soo was there instead. If it was Stielike’s response to many critics of his supposed J.League bias by demonstrating a lack of quality within K League ranks, then… yay! I guess.

Now, how do you fix this? Well, certainly not by going back to the chronically restless Han Kook-young to insert him alongside Ki Sung-yueng where he struggled at the World Cup. Giving Lee Jae-sung a rare start was a crowd-pleasing call and proved to be a wise one, too, as the straight-forward dribbler ran rings around his opponents, most notably while dribbling along the right-side line. Hwang Hee-chan’s movement was also an upgrade to anything tried out prior at this stage of the qualifiers. In the end, South Korea were, actually, quite fluid in the attacking half, as opposed to the tepid March reality.

However, all this counts for nothing when you’ve got four defenders flagging it at the back. Unhelped by the unconvincing referee, a serious and rather early injury to Son, some bad luck in front of the goal and, also, an unimposing Ki Sung-yueng (he’s been really really underwhelming ever since the Asian Cup, have you noticed?), South Korea were left frustrated…

… and they will most likely continue to feel the same as long as the current KFA board keep closing their eyes. Uli Stielike must go now, or else he’ll probably start Lee Jung-hyup in August just to stick it to everyone. But the directors should go too, since arguably no one trusts them to make an educated appointment at this point. After all, there’s a rumor going around that an assistant will take the Taeguk Warriors through the last two qualifiers – to probably make sure they are not the last two after all.

Even if Stielike goes, who do you move on to? Choi Yong-soo is free after being fired by Jiangsu and his inevitable restart of Park Chu-young’s international career could be fun to watch, but there’s a real danger of a laboring South Korea as the late Seoul under his guidance warns us. Shin Tae-yong sort of discredited himself at the Olympics as a man who was keen to roll with Jang Hyun-soo the Regista and crushed at the first real hurdle, plus it would feel way too much like a Hong Myung-bo re-run.

This all is probably why Stielike has stayed on for so long. The KFA may not have money for a decent foreigner with serious reputation and the domestic pool hardly promises much improvement. At this point, however, a change simply must happen – if only just for the sake of it. Any change is fine… TD

New bosses fail to deliver in Bangkok

While other sides are looking towards August for the final push for Russia, UAE can pretty much rule themselves out of the running, after only managing a draw with Thailand in Bangkok. In the battle of the new coaches – former Ghana boss Milovan Rajevac for Thailand and Edgardo Bauza for UAE, neither prospered in a match that saw both sets of players struggle with a new system being rolled out by their incoming coach.

Prior to the match, UAE knew they were up against it to stay in with a shout of qualification, so Bauza’s first competitive opportunity to test his side’s mettle was meant to plot a way forward to a home Asian Cup in 2019, rather than a win at all cost methodology. In the the end neither a clear way forward nor that killer instinct in the final third was sought, with even the odd Emirati fan ironically wishing that Mahid Ali would return.

There were positives from the outset; Omar Abdulrahman started in a central position, in behind Ali Mabkhout, somewhere where the diminutive playmaker needs to be if they are to get the very best out of his extraordinary talent. Tariq Ahmed looked a threat down the right, while striker Mabkhout showed some decent movement, despite his heavier set on display. There was some promise, but all in all, a quick, proactive style of attacking football wasn’t going to be harnessed overnight.

They could’ve stole all three points, be it not for a sloppy turnover in play that forced Thailand’s opener. The static defending was deplorable, but the weak hands of keeper Majed Nasser, who dropped the cross at the feet of Mongkol was indefensible. Thailand who rarely threatened themselves were lucky, but could’ve somehow started their spell under Milovan Rajevac with a victory but for.a late Makbkout leveler

Thailand at least knew their qualification hopes were over prior to the match, but went into their new managerial cycle in a different mood, given the outgoing coach Kiatisuk Senamuang was generally well liked, forced out by the Football Association rather than the ill feeling of the fans. Rajevac’s first impressions have been worrying also; key players from Thailand;s leading club Muangthong United declined their call up through debatable injuries, while star man Teerasil Dangda watched from the bench, despite stating his availability in the run up.

Whether there is a point to be proven or not, Rajevac has another two competitive matches to run the rule over his squad ahead of a year’s preparation upon return to the Asian Cup. Tactically, it was clear this Thailand will differ from Kiatisuk’s version, gone is the three at the back/wingback system, in it’s place a more defensively sturdy 4231. From their first 90 minutes, it’s hard to suggest it’s a move for the better, but with the hope of their key men returning in 2 months time, we can leave it for now to see Rajevac’s early plans in action. ML

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