Runners and riders: assessing Asian World Cup prospects

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Cafu pulls 'Iran' out of the bowl and Diego Maradona looks uncomfortable as the draw is made for the 2018 FIFA World Cup at the Kremlin Palace in Moscow on December 1. Photo: Reuters / Sergei Karpukhin

For the first time in World Cup history, Asia will have five “horses” in the race when the tournament kicks off in June. Australia, Japan, South Korea, Iran and Saudi Arabia are among the 32 nations aiming for glory in Russia.

Glory is in the eye of the receiver of course. For some teams, like Brazil or Germany, it can only mean taking the trophy home. Asia’s finest are not at that stage yet but all have different hopes, expectations and challenges.

Collectively, the challenge is to restore the continent’s reputation after the disaster of 2014, when the four representatives  – same as above, minus Saudi Arabia – collected a combined total of just three points. That’s right.

There were 12 games played, three were drawn and the other nine were lost. As an advert for Asian football is was not the best. There is hope that 2018 will be different. Here are the teams with their group opponents

Iran (face Spain, Portugal and Morocco)

In 2014, Iran were the best of a bad bunch and only lost to Argentina courtesy of a last-minute moment of magic from Lionel Messi. Now, Team Melli have not only qualified for successive World Cups for the first time ever but have clearly established themselves as Asia’s team to beat.

In the final stages of qualifying, Iran were unbeaten. Not only that, but under their experienced and respected coach, Carlos Queiroz, they conceded just two goals in 10 games. With a solid defense and growing firepower up front, Iran are the continent’s best hope going into their fifth World Cup.

Or rather, they were before the draw was made on December 1. Being placed in a group with 2010 World Cup and 2012 European champions Spain and 2016 European champions Portugal is tough. If Iran get through that to a first-ever appearance in the knockout stages, a football-loving nation will go crazy.

South Korea (face Germany, Sweden and Mexico)

South Korea are Asia’s most successful World Cup nation and are looking forward to a ninth successive appearance. Looking forward just about, that is, after the disaster of Brazil 2014, where they took just one point from three games and three poor performances.

The ‘Taeguk Warriors’ performed poorly during qualification, winning just four of 10 games in the final round and taking just one point from five games away from home. Even so, they somehow limped over the line. Their poor form cost Uli Stielike his job as head coach in June and in came Shin Tae-yong.

What had been a poor year ended with some encouragement as Korea defeated Colombia in a November friendly, their best performance of 2017. Then came December’s East Asian Championships.

Featuring China, North Korea and hosts Japan, the tournament is considered low-key – in part because European-based players are not available to participate – but South Korea won, thrashing Japan 4-1 on the final day in Tokyo. It was a fine way to end a poor year.

Much depends on Son Heung-min, the team’s star player, who has shone in the English Premier League for Tottenham Hotspur during the past 18 months. The striker is currently Asia’s top player and if he can show that in Russia then a tough group will begin to seem a little easier.

Australia (face France, Denmark and Peru)

Australia were the only Asian team (yup, Australia is part of Asia for football purposes) to fail to collect a single point at the Brazil World Cup, although they performed reasonably well in a tough group. The journey to Russia, however, was torturous, and it took a quarter of a million kilometers and 20 games.

The Socceroos had to struggle through two play-offs, the first against  Syria, followed by Honduras. In the end, they made it, but days after coach Ange Postecoglou resigned for reasons that are still not entirely clear. There was still no replacement at time of writing, with time ticking down to get ready for what is an interesting group.

The opening game against France – one of the tournament favorites – will be the toughest, while the other two fixtures, against middling European and South American opposition, offer hope. The team lacks stars, however, and the coaching appointment needs to be the right one.

Japan (face Senegal, Colombia and Poland)

The ‘Samurai Blue’ are still sore about 2014 after heading to South America with high expectations. Interestingly, their final game then was a 4-1 defeat at the hands of Colombia, their first opponent in June.

Get through that with a point or better and there is a real chance. But when you combine an unpredictable Japan and a wide-open group then there would seem to be as much chance of a fourth-place finish as there is of a first-place one.

While Japan have plenty of experienced European-based stars, there are some issues. Coach Vahid Halilhodzic has been under pressure after uncertain performances in qualification and in November left out his three biggest stars for high-profile friendly games against Brazil and Belgium. It remains to be seen if Keisuke Honda, Shinji Kagawa and Shinji Okazaki return to the fold.

Saudi Arabia (face Russia, Egypt and Uruguay)

The lowest-ranked team at the World Cup apart from hosts Russia, Saudi Arabia will be pleased with the draw. It could have been a lot worse. Taking on the hosts on the opening day in Moscow will be a big occasion for a group of players lacking international experience. But it may also be a great chance to take advantage of opening day nerves that Russia may have.

To do so the Saudis will have to be at their best and you never quite know with this team. Not only did they fire coach Bert Van Marwijk, the man who led them through qualification for the first time since 2006, in September, they then fired his replacement, Edgardo Bauza, in November. The new man in the job, Juan Antonio Pizzi, will have to get to know his players in the coming months.

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