28/07/2007

Final Preview: Low scoring match could favour Iraq.

I have read previews of tomorrows final of the Asian Cup, and they all appear to highlight the attackers on both side, seeing the match as a battle to see which pair of forwards does best.

Much that I would like the final to be an open attacking game, much more like the semi-final in which Saudi Arabia beat Japan, than the affair where Iraq went past South Korea on penalties. However, I am not convinced that will be the case. I see the final as contest between the free scoring Saudi attack and the miserly Iraqi defence.

The Saudis have scored 12 goals in their five goals so far – the only time I saw them was in their third group game. Playing in the outpost of Palembang, they only needed a point to be certain of qualifying. A drawn match might have let their Arab neighbours Bahrain through, at the expense of more favoured South Korea – but the Saudis were not going to settle for anything, instead turning on the power and leaving Bahrain reeling on the wrong end of four goals, and it could easily have been more. The Saudi defence have been quite frugal, but five goals have got past them, including two equalisers for Japan in the semi-finals.

By comparison, the Iraq team have scored only six goals. Half of these were against Australia in what must still remain as the result of the competition. Iraq have only conceded two – an early (and very questionable) penalty against Thailand in the opening game, and Mark Viduka’s equaliser early in the second half of the Australia match before the team were overpowered. In the final group game, when Iraq needed only a draw to go through, there were no goals. In the quarter-final, there was little hope for Vietnam after Iraq had gone ahead in just 86 seconds, and in the semi-final, there were no goals over 120 minutes.

Of course, one can easily point out the difficulties the Iraq team has to go through just to be here. I do not have to discuss the trouble in their home land – not surprisingly, this has left the Iraqi football league in a mess. The team have to play all their international matches away from home, as do Iraqi club teams playing in the Asian champions league. Most of the squad, however, play not for Iraqi football teams, but for those of neighbouring countries in West Asia, North Africa and even Cyprus. It is said that every member of the team has either a friend or family member killed in the current troubles, while goalkeeper Noor Sabri, whose penalty shoot out save made him the hero of the semi-final, recently had to contend with the death of his brother-in-law. While every victory has led to wild celebrations in their homeland, and this football team appears to be the only place where different factions combine for the good of Iraq, it does have its downside. There were reports of accidental deaths as people celebrate by shooting into the air, while the semi-final celebrations were soured by car bombings.

The team has had some success in the past, as many of the players have played in the age limited competitions of the 2004 Olympics, and the 2006 Asian games. In the Olympics, they surprised much of the world by reaching the semi-finals. In the Asian games, they went a little better, only losing to home team Qatar in the final. In competitions where the full team is sent out, though – the team has not been so successful. In the Gulf Cup in January, they failed in the group stage, although only because their goals scored and conceded was not as good as Bahrain’s record (four scored and conceded) when both finished with four points. Notably, the team that knocked them out was Saudi Arabia, with a 1-0 win, when a draw would have confirmed both teams qualifying for the semi-finals.

It is often difficult to compare Arab team names from one competition from the next. The organisers have a tendency to produce different transliterations of the names from Arabic to English on different occasions, added to which many players have a long series of names, of which a few are selected for each competition, so the same player occasional appears under a very different name, fooling the uninitiated like myself.

Still, I am certain that the Iraqi side that played in the Gulf Cup is by and large the same players that have come out to South East Asia. The main change is the appointment of Jorvan Vieira, a Brazilian who has spent most of his coaching career in Arab countries. Vieira was assistant manager of the Moroccan team that reached the second round of the World Cup in Mexico. By contrast, I do not think many of the players that played for Saudi Arabia in the Gulf Cup have been selected for this competition. The exceptions appear to be in forward players, Yasser Al Qahtani and Malek Masz both played. All the Saudi Arabian players ply their trade in their homeland, but their coach has said that several (including Yasser and Masz) could play in the European leagues, (he appeared to be hinting that this would help their game as well). If this was to happen, we would have a unique situation – foreigners travelling to join European leagues for football reasons, rather than monetary ones.

The Saudi coach is also a Brazilian – but with a somewhat different coaching career to his counterpart, except in one respect. He has only recently arrived as National Coach, after his predecessor was sacked for his comparable failures (only one point in last summer’s world cup finals, and defeat to the home nation and eventual champions, UAE, in the semi-final of January’s Gulf Cup). Helio dos Anjos is undertaking his first national posting, and his first outside Brazil. He has 30 different coaching positions listed during a 19 year career in Brazilian football, but few of the really big teams are on the list, and his major honours are a second division title, and ten state championships. Saudi managers do not tend to last long, and if dos Anjos does not deliver the goods tomorrow, then it may not be enough to stay in position.

While Iraq’s best performance in the Asian Cup is fourth place back in 1976, and they have lost in the quarter-finals in the last three tournaments, Saudi Arabia’s record is second to none. The arrived in the finals competition for the first time in 1984 – the last time it was in South East Asia (Singapore then), they beat China 2-0 in the finals that time, and South Korea on penalties four years later, played in Qatar. In the 1992 finals in Japan, Saudi Arabia reached the final, but lost 1-0 to the hosts. The 1996 finals were back in the Gulf, at UAE, and again Saudi played the hosts in the final – winning their third title, and again on penalties after a 0-0 draw, then in 2000, Japan beat them again 1-0. You can see how much the semi-final win this time can be seen as sweet revenge, as well as preventing the Japanese for winning three in a row.

With only one point in their group games in China, 2004 was the only time that Saudi Arabia have played in the finals, without reaching the actual final. As Japan won this one as well, it means that only Japan and Saudi Arabia have won in the last six tournaments. The Saudis have also now appeared in four successive World Cup final tournaments, but have not won a game in the last three. In 1994, they beat Morocco and Belgium, and took the lead against the Netherlands (losing 2-1), before going out to Sweden in the knock out stages.

So, there it is – a final with promise – but I suspect a low scoring affair. Saudi Arabia have to start as favourites, and they will be the winner if the goal tally is high. Iraq are more likely to win 1-0 or on penalties. (Note, I have been wrong on most things in this tournament).

One thing that should not be a factor in the final is the climate. Through the tournament, this has been used as an excuse, but appears to have been less of a factor than expected. While all the venues have been hot and humid; Hanoi has been hotter and more humid than the others. With Saudi Arabia having to travel to Hanoi from Jakarta (at least a four hour flight) and into a much humid atmosphere – while having a day less than their opponents between matches – I thought everything in the semi would be in Japan’s favour. (As I said, I have been wrong quite often)

I cannot comment here on the play-off, simply as it has been on TV as I have been typing (no goals yet). The AFC have decided that the winner of the play-off, together with both finalists will be exempt from qualifying for the next competition, (by contrast, holders Japan had to qualify for this one). I am not certain whether this is a great prize. It means the options for the teams is either playing only friendly games once the next World Cup qualifying period (and possibly finals) is completed, or playing meaningful, but probably relatively easy qualification games for the 2011 finals? Still, having seen the first half, even though it has been goal-less, I can be certain that both teams do want to win. Well, neither set of players can easily go home if they have not tried their best against the opposition.