The final round of qualification for the World Cup resumes on Thursday and it is safe to say that, Saudi Arabia and perhaps Oman apart, it could have gone better for the Arab teams so far.
With just the top two from both six-team groups receiving automatic places in Qatar, there is not much room for slip-ups. With Matchday 3 of the 10 games about to start, here are five things to look out for in Thursday’s matches.
1. Saudi Arabia should learn from Oman against Japan
You can’t do better than win two out of two, and Saudi Arabia are looking very good after what were, in the end, deserved victories over Vietnam and Oman. Now, however, come Japan, the team that have been Asia’s best over the past few years.
Salem Al-Dawsari may be missing through injury, but this is no reason for the Green Falcons to sit back and hope for the best even against a team that is packed full of European-based talent. Japan are the ones under pressure after losing the opening game to Oman and can’t afford to lose in Jeddah.
That Oman triumph gives Herve Renard his blueprint: Give Japan as little time and space as possible and counter-attack at speed and with conviction.
Japan coach Hajime Moriyasu is under pressure after the uncertain start, and it remains to be seen if he will stick to his criticized cautious style or take the handbrake off. Regardless, Saudi Arabia’s recent intensity and increasing fluidity under Renard should cause the East Asians problems.
2. Pressure on UAE
It wasn’t supposed to be like this for the Whites. After Bert van Marwijk returned for his second spell in charge, the team looked increasingly impressive in the second round of qualification, and hopes were high that a return to the global stage for the first time since their 1990 debut was a real possibility. It still is, but results must improve.
Two games against Lebanon and Iraq, two of the weaker members of the group, have brought just two points. It means that Thursday’s home game against Iran, Asia’s highest-ranked team at 22 and the only one in Group A with maximum points from the first two games, is almost a must-win and certainly a must-not-lose.
Should the UAE crash to defeat then they will already be seven points behind Iran, and first place will be a long shot. Should South Korea defeat Syria, then even second spot will be five points away. There have been good moments so far from the UAE, but against Iran, the team has to produce a solid performance over the full 90 minutes.
3. Syria should take the game to South Korea
So far, Syria have flown under the radar, though performances have been decent with a narrow loss in Tehran and a 1-1 draw with the UAE. Next is another trip to Ansan in South Korea. The Koreans are not looking forward to taking on a team they do not enjoy playing against. Last time around, Syria played defensively in two games against the Taeguk Warriors, and they were dreadful and frustrating affairs.
Korea have four points from the opening two games at home but have not impressed, and there is growing criticism of coach Paulo Bento and his seeming inability to get the best out of a bunch of talented players. The likes of Son Heung-min and Hwang Hee-chan are impressing in the English Premier League, but the European-based players only arrived in Seoul 48 hours before kick-off after a long journey across seven or eight time zones. They are unlikely to be at their best. With the likes of Omar Kharbin and Omar Al-Somah ready to link up in attack, there is no reason why Syria can’t get something from Korea — if they show ambition.
4. Iraq against Lebanon has massive significance
While only the top two places in the group offer automatic qualification, there is also another route. Finish third and there is a play-off against the team in the same position in the other group. Win that and then there is an intercontinental playoff, usually against a Concacaf nation, with a place at the World Cup at stake.
Iraq were always unlikely to finish in the top two despite going for the big-name foreign coach option in Dick Advocaat. The Lions of Mesopotamia have always had lots of talent but have long lacked the consistency to return to the World Cup for the first time since 1986. Third is possible and should be the target.
One point from the first two games does not sound great but it did come against the top two teams: South Korea in Seoul, which brought a hard-working goalless draw, and then a 3-0 loss against Iran, which was not a true reflection of how competitive the game was.
Now though, Iraq have to win against the lowest-ranked team in the group in Lebanon. There are suggestions that some players are less than happy with Advocaat’s strict regime, but now is the time to start picking up points. With the UAE taking on Iran, a win for Iraq could well see them in third.
For Lebanon, there has also been a point and the target for the Cedars is to be competitive in every game and then see what happens.
5. Oman can make lightning strike twice
On paper, defeating Japan in Japan is a much tougher task than taking on Australia in Qatar so there is no reason why Oman can’t give the Socceroos a real game. Coach Branko Ivankovic will be delighted that he doesn’t have to take his team all the way down under, a place where Australia have a fantastic record in World Cup qualification.
Australia are in great form generally, having won their last 10 games, and are full of confidence. But the same can be said of Oman, the only Arab team apart from Saudi Arabia to taste victory so far in this round of games. Against Japan, they were the better team: brave and proactive. History is, however, against the men from Muscat, with just one win in nine against Australia. The last two encounters ended in a combined 9-0 scoreline.
Oman will hope that this means Australia, like Japan probably did, are a little complacent but whatever happens, The Reds are not here to make up the numbers but to challenge.