The first games of the Third Round, sans Palestine, kicked off last week. We'll be covering qualifying until the last matchday with observations on how the landscape of Asian Football is changing.
What We Learned:
1. Stability pays off: The AFC is notorious for high managerial turnover, with most coaches lucky to last two years in their position. Four out of the Five group leaders (Australia, Iran, Japan, & Korea Republic) replaced their managers in 2010 or 2011. That said the reigns of Holger Osieck, Carlos Queiroz, Alberto Zaccheroni, & Cho Kwang-Rae were preceded by a set of coaches who despite their unpopularity, brought stability to their national team set-up. Contrast that with the travails of the Saudi National Team who have had four different coaches in this past calendar year alone. Frank Rijkaard is a great coach but no one can be expected to deliver results after only a month on the job with no opportunity to see the domestic league in action.
2. Team spirit is an important ingredient: The shock of the second matchday was Lebanon defeating UAE 3-1 only four days after getting hammered 6-0 by Korea Republic. It remains to be seen whether or not this is an anomalous result for Lebanon or the start of a new more promising era. That said, you have to hand it to The Cedars for not giving up after going down early with the 6-0 reverse in their mind and with the Emirati supporters drowning out whatever home support there was. On the flip side, I have never such lazy play in a must-win game from an established Asian side. So much ball-watching, so little urgency, the Emiratis seemed to think that goals were owed to them. Srecko Katanec got the sack after the game but his players are far from blameless.
3. Asian football is improving: Asian football remains extremely underappreciated by outsiders. The acquisition of Park Chu-Young by Arsenal was widely mocked, the Asian Cup is perhaps the least covered continental championship (Oceania excepted), and players not from the "Big Three" of Australia, Japan, & Korea Republic are relatively unknown outside their homelands. It is safe to say that the Big Three will qualify for Brazil 2014 but they are sure to have their noses bloodied along the way. Japan and Korea Republic dropped points in Uzbekistan and Kuwait respectively while Australia were pushed to the brink at home by a tactically aware and organized Thailand. The advancement of the middle and lower tiers of Asia makes the football more fun to watch and will ensure that the World Cup representatives are better vetted ahead of Brazil 2014.
The Teams (In two sentences)
Jordan: One of only two teams with a 100% record after two matchdays. Adnan Hamed has them playing organized and effective counterattacking football; as I said before they're like a well-coached Palestine.
Iraq: Not quite the 2007 vintage but still a very good team, the loss to Jordan was unexpected but they recovered with a win against Singapore. Zico will need to solve problems in the final third; Iraq played some free-flowing football against Singapore that didn't result in goals.
China: Gao Hongbo had done a fine job in his two years in charge of the National Team so the decision to hire Jose Antonio Camacho last month is puzzling, to say the least. The Great Wall needed a questionable penalty to overcome Singapore at home and against Jordan they rarely troubled GK Amer Shafia.
Singapore: Singapore were victims of a poor refereeing that allowed China to equalize from the spot. The Lions are not to be underestimated and could spring an upset or two but their dependence on Aleksandar Duric (41) is troubling.
Korea Republic: The Tigers got a point from their toughest away encounter in the group against Kuwait. Park Chu-Young has four goals to his name in qualifying and is a joy to watch.
Kuwait: Looked fantastic against UAE until leaking two late goals to set up a tense finish en route to a 3-2 away win. Bolstered their defensive credentials with a fine display against Korea Republic which earned them a point.
Lebanon: With their toughest fixture out of the way and only a point behind the group's leaders, qualification for the final round remains a mathematical possibility. Their win yesterday however was the product of truly atrocious defending from the UAE.
UAE: Ranked next to last among the 20 remaining teams in qualifying. Mohammed bin Hammam summed it up nicely in 2009: "The UAE has good facilities, stadiums, coaches, and the rest. But what is missing? The main factor is the players."
Japan: A late winner against Korea DPR at home and a late equalizer against Uzbekistan has given that Asian Champs a straightforward route to the Final Round. Maximum points against Tajikistan in back-to-back meetings should all but clinch qualification.
Uzbekistan: Not a recognized name on the world stage but make no mistake Uzbekistan has been a top 10 AFC nation for the past decade. The Uzbeks have some of the best off the ball movement on the continent with Server Djeparov and Odil Ahmedov pulling the strings in midfield.
Korea DPR: There are three possible score lines in a game involving Korea DPR: 1-0, 0-0, 0-1. Japan and Uzbekistan's quality should prove a bridge too far.
Tajikistan: Only here because of Syria's unexpected disqualification. They will benefit from this experience with the Challenge Cup around the corner.
Australia: Made to sweat it out against Thailand but were excellent in their second game against Saudi Arabia. Six points in two tough encounters have them well on their way to the final round.
Thailand: Winnie Schaeffer has harnessed the potential of this Thai team. Rampant against Oman and tactically excellent against Australia the War Elephants can be proud of their accomplishments. Away matches in West Asia await where they have an atrocious away record (3W 9D 18L- Last win in 2004 vs. Yemen).
Saudi Arabia: If Rijkaard gets the boot you can forget about The Greens getting out of the group. Expect the Dutchman to shake up the squad and once he's had a chance to scout the Zain Pro League which kicks off this Friday.
Oman: Answered Saudi Arabia flatness in the first game with indifference. Looked absolutely horrible against Thailand and were lucky to escape with only a 3-0 score line, Paul Le Guen has his work cut out for him.
Iran: Fantastic skill on the ball is to be expected from Team-e-Melli and the new system put in place by Carlos Queiroz has preserved that. Much like their neighbors, Iraq, the problem has been their wastefulness in front of goal.
Bahrain: The supposed fifth best team in Asia according to the AFC's pre-tournament seeding. That title will be put to the test against Iran (twice) and Qatar away but at the time of writing are joint top of Group D on 4 points.
Qatar: The saving grace for Al-Enabi is that the three other managers in the group all took over in 2011. Getting something out of the Iran game was huge but they will need to take care of Bahrain at home now after letting two points slip away in Manama.
Indonesia: A very inconsistent team with a new manager at the helm so not much can be expected. Followers of Palestine will remember that the B-team was up 1-0 in Solo and looking comfortable with 25 minutes to play; I think that is more indicative of Indonesia's level than the four goals they scored afterward.