16/07/2007

The Old Order is not yet Dead

It may be dangerous to publish a page including predictions less than half an hour before the game kicks off, but here’s to living dangerously

When the qualification draw for the Asian Cup was released. I wrote down a list of the twelve teams I expected to qualify. I cannot remember now whether or not I got all 12 correct, but I do know that I got at least 11. Indeed, there were only two questions in my mind when making my list – would Bahrain or Kuwait join Australia from Group D, and whether it would be Jordan or Oman to qualify in Group C?

Both Jordan and Kuwait played in the last finals in China. The only other team in the 16 for the 2004 tournament, not to also play in 2007 was Turkmenistan – who did not even enter the qualification stage. The three new teams in contention are two of the hosts, Vietnam and Malaysia, plus new boys Australia. In the same way, China 2004 was the first time 16 teams played in the finals, and 11 of the 12 teams from the tournament played in Lebanon four years earlier were back. Only Lebanon themselves missed out.

This is the way of Asian football, and has been for all the time I have been following sport in the region. There is an established order in the game and this is neither easily upset or changed. It is not the way of all the world. In Africa, home advantage is a far more significant factor, while in Europe, it is not unknown for a team to be built up and spend a few years in the limelight, and then to fade back towards insignificance.

So we entered the tournament with certain expectations. In many minds, the four group winners were known in advance, and would all move on to the semi-finals. These four teams were Australia, Japan, Iran and South Korea. The second places were never supposed to be so clear, with the other two teams in the group, (with the exception of the hosts) in each group expected to fight a close contest. For the hosts, the question was whether any of them at all, even with the addition of home advantage could even challenge for qualification.

The first two rounds of matches show a marked difference to expectations. In particular there were much stronger performances from the home sides than anyone could have expected (except Malaysia – more of them later). In addition to this, we have seen two of the ‘big four’ failing to do the business. Although still in competition, both these teams are at seriously at risk of not reaching the knock out stages.

In group A, Thailand set the standard in the opening game, when they picked up a 1-1 draw with Iraq. The following day, Oman came within a minute of defeating Australia. The second round really opened up the competition though, as both Thailand and Iraq won their matches. The Thais beating Oman, while Iraq surprised Australia by demonstrating the commitment needing to succeed at this level. After only one week, Graham Arnold’s whinging excuses as to why Australia’s failures are the vault of everyone but himself are already becoming legendary in these parts.

But it is not all over, Thailand and Iraq have four points, Oman and Australia only one, but this could all change in the final round. If two teams should end up level on points, then the spoils go to the team with the best head to head record. This means that if only one of Australia and Oman win their last game, they will draw level with their opponents on points, and the win they have just achieved will give them the better head to head result. But if both Oman and Australia are to win in the games ahead, then all four teams in the group end on four points. In this case, it is the overall group goal difference that counts, meaning that a three goal win is required to ensure qualification.

In Group B, Vietnam started by trumping the achievements of their great rivals, by winning their first game against UAE. Japan were slow starters being held by Qatar, but then came good in beating the UAE team 3-1. While the strengths of the Japanese were clear in this game, so were their weaknesses, and they lost their way when a bigger margin should have been possible. While the UAE have now been knocked out, Qatar scored a second draw in the match against Vietnam – forcing the issue in the second half when the home side could not raise the game, even with 40,000 home supporters behind them.

So with Vietnam and Japan level on four points, and each having won a game by a two goal margins, they are strongly placed to qualify as they play each other. But this leaves Qatar in an interesting position in the other game – if they can beat the UAE by three goals, then they know they will overtake at least one of the teams from the other group. Indeed if either Japan or Vietnam win, then any win puts Qatar through – but should Qatar fail, then the other result becomes unimportant as both teams are already qualified.

While the host sides have exceeded expectation in Groups A and B – in group C they have made up for this. Malaysia being outmanoeuvred and overpowered in both their opening games. Both China and Uzbekistan knocking five goals past them. The Iranians beat Uzbekistan in their first game, and then recovered strongly from 2-0 down to take a point off China and leave the Chinese holding on for this at the end. A single point will confirm Iranian qualification, and it almost inconceivable they will not go beyond that. China hold the upper hand in the other game, the point gained against Iran means they only need a draw to go through – but Uzbekistan have in Shatskikh a player with the potential to be tournaments top scorer, and if on form, he can take his team a long way.

The Indonesians also opened their campaign with a further success for the hosts, defeating Bahrain, while South Korea drew 1-1 with Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia have since built up the strength and reputation by outlasting their hosts in the second game and rising to four points, but South Korea did not carry on in the same vein. They enjoyed a great deal of possession against Bahrain, but time and time again they failed to turn this into goals, finally losing out when Bahrain scored. So both Bahrain and Indonesia have three points going into the last game, Saudi Arabia are ahead with four, while South Korea are hanging in with just the one.

This leaves the group in a most complex state, except for Saudi Arabia – they know that they pick up at least a draw against Bahrain, they must go through to the quarter-finals, and a victory must leave them top of the pile. Both Bahrain and Indonesia also know that winning their last game is enough to push them into the next round – they also both know that a draw may well be enough. For Bahrain, a fourth point would be enough if South Korea were to win their last game, for Indonesia it is enough if Bahrain do not win. South Korea need to win their last game, and then hope the other result is to their liking. South Korea’s hopes depend on Saudi Arabia also winning their game.