Two down, eight to go.
There were three 1-0 wins in Group B of the Asia qualifiers for Qatar 2022 on Thursday. Australia, Japan and Saudi Arabia downed their respective opponents Vietnam, Oman and China by a single goal in matchday 2 of the third round of AFC qualification.
Saudi Arabia is sitting pretty with two wins out of two, level on points with Australia. Japan and Oman have three each, with China and Vietnam yet to get off the mark. If the first round was exciting, the second was intriguing. Here are five things we learned.
1. Concentration and discipline see Saudi Arabia past Oman
Saudi Arabia’s 1-0 win in Oman was a big result and came from a fine team performance. The Reds, fresh after that 1-0 win in Japan, have improved and asked plenty of questions in Muscat, but it was almost a perfect away performance from the visitors. The Green Falcons did what they had to do in getting the all-important first goal and then tried to slow the game down, invite Oman forward and hit on the break.
It was an intelligent performance and showed the progress made under coach Herve Renard, with the team keeping its shape well, and the players remaining focused and disciplined. It was not flawless, of course — a one goal lead is always vulnerable, and Oman should have snatched a point right at the end when Abdulaziz Al-Muqbali shot over from yards out with the goal at his mercy. For Saudi Arabia, however, it was a real team effort.
2. Al-Shehri stakes his striking claim
Fahad Al-Muwallad is one of the most exciting players to watch in Asia when on form and his backheel to set up the Saudi goal was a thing of beauty. In fact, the whole move is worthy of praise. A perfectly weighted floated pass into the right side of the area from Salman Al-Faraj, the instinctive touch from the Al-Ittihad star that found Saleh Al-Shehri who, despite the close attention of four defenders, produced a first-time finish low into the Omani goal. Easy on the eye.
It is no secret that the striker’s position has been a problem for Saudi Arabia in recent years, especially as the team plays with one up front. But being a problem position also means that it is up for grabs. Abdullah Al-Hamdan was the anointed one (or number nine, at least), but has failed to make the spot his own. With a strike rate that has now reached seven goals in 10 games, Al-Shehri has moved to the top of the list and should be safe in the knowledge that the shirt is his for the next few games at least.
3. It already looks like a three-way race for top two spots
It might be a little early to make that call, but with China and Vietnam losing both of their opening games, it is difficult to imagine that these two teams — which have one World Cup finals appearance between them — can take one of the automatic spots for Qatar 2022. If they can bounce back to impressive effect then perhaps third place and the play-offs are possible, but finishing in the top two is already off the agenda.
Oman impressed with the win in Japan and caused problems against Saudi Arabia. The Reds will take points in this stage of the road to Qatar and will be in the running for third. But it looks as if the top two places will be contested by Australia, Japan and Saudi Arabia.
Australia have not been in top form but look ominous. Opening games against China and Vietnam in Hanoi looked tricky for the Socceroos, but they took six points without really impressing, while Japan returned to winning ways. These three powerhouses are going to fight it out.
4. Japan bounce back
After the shocking loss to Oman in the opening game, the pressure was on Japan to beat China and they did just that with a 1-0 win. Failure to do so may have cost coach Hajjime Moriyasu his job.
While the scoreline was narrow, Japan dominated and should have won by more against a team that had little possession and no shots on target. There was more of the fluid passing game that is expected of the East Asians, though the lack of goals in the first two games will be something of a worry.
Japanese fans hope it will be a repeat of the same stage of qualification last time. On the road to Russia, the UAE won the first game of the group in Japan, but the Samurai Blue bounced back to win six games and draw two of the next eight and, in the end, qualified with ease.
5. Tough tests still to come
It seems an obvious thing to say but the next game will reveal a lot about whether Saudi Arabia are going to finish in the top two. Two tricky games so far have resulted in six points: Obviously a perfect return, but the two opponents were, on paper at least, the weakest two teams in the group. Now it gets difficult.
Next up is Japan. The Samurai Blue may have lost 1-0 to Oman in the opening game but are still Asia’s best team. It is to be hoped that there is a full house in Riyadh as Saudi Arabia will need all the help they can get to get a result.
If the Green Falcons can draw against Japan, they keep that three-point cushion. A win would open up a six-point gap and bring Qatar into sight. With four weeks to go, coach Renard has time to show why he is one of the best working in Asia. It would be a famous win.
With Australia facing Oman in Sydney and expecting to emerge victorious, the top two could start to pull away, and that would put huge pressure on Japan.