RIYADH: World Cup qualifiers are coming thick and fast at the moment and Tuesday brings six massive games in the Asian qualifiers for Qatar 2020.
It will be Matchday 4 out of 10, a time when groups are taking shape. There are already some must-win or at least must-not-lose games, and here are five things to look out for.
1. Concentration will be key in Jeddah
It is all very obvious but Saudi Arabia will kick themselves if after defeating Japan they go on to drop points against China.
The visitors arrived in Jeddah — staying at the same hotel as Japan where the Samurai Blue’s training schedule can still be seen on whiteboards around the building — on a high after defeating Vietnam in the 95th minute to pick up their first points of the stage. Getting one more in Jeddah would be a good result and keep hopes of third place alive.
Third spot is not on Saudi minds at the moment as they have won all three games so far and are looking in good shape for automatic qualification. The Chinese are going to sit back and look to counter, and they are not going to throw men forward — the first goal against Vietnam came from the first shot on target in the group stage.
So Saudi Arabia are going to have a lot of the ball and are not going to have to defend too much which makes concentration key. The defense needs to stay alert and especially watch Wu Lei, the Espanyol winger with an eye for goal.
2. Saudi Arabia’s left side will be crucial
China can be vulnerable down the right side, meaning that the Saudi left has a big part to play.
It is fortunate that Yasser Al-Shahrani is in such great form for club and country. The full-back was excellent against Japan in defense, and though he did not get forward as much as he usually does for Al-Hilal, he should be regarded as what he is: One of the best full-backs in Asia. There should be more chances to attack against China and some of his expert delivery into the penalty area could make the difference.
One of the few questions about the nature of what is an increasingly settled team is who plays in front of the 29-year-old? Against Japan, it was Abdulrahman Ghareeb who got the nod and the Al-Ahli star had a solid game and almost scored in the second half, though his finish lacked a little conviction. Abdulrahman Al-Aboud is the other option and has been in great form for Al-Ittihad though lacks international experience. It is a call that Renard needs to get right.
3. Time for Ali Mabkhout’s team-mates to step forward
Two points from three games is not the stuff that World Cup dreams are made of. The UAE are really going to have to up their game against Iraq in Dubai. It is a must-win for Bert van Marwijk if he wants one of those two automatic qualification spots. Already, the UAE are five points behind second-placed South Korea, but there is hope.
Korea are in Tehran, a place where they have never won, losing five and drawing two of their seven visits to the Iranian capital. The east Asians are not exactly in sparkling form at the moment, and it would be a surprise if they won at the Azadi Stadium. This means there is a chance for the UAE to get back within touching distance of the Taeguk Warriors ahead of November’s meeting.
Three points on Tuesday are essential then. Iraq are not going to come to Dubai and attack from the get-go. Clear chances will be hard to come by and the UAE need someone other than Ali Mabkhout, the scorer of the only goal in the three games so far, who can put the ball in the net.
4. Iraq need to show their ambition
Hiring Dick Advocaat does not seem to be working for Iraq. The 2007 Asian champions have yet to score a goal and have not looked like doing so very often. There have been concerns about the Dutchman’s team selections, the time he has actually spent watching Iraqi football, and whether his strict methods are suited to the team’s talented but inconsistent players.
Familiar faces such as Ali Adnan, who is currently without a club, and Humam Tariq have not been at their best and without their influence the team has been lacking in direction and conviction.
It remains to be seen if Advocaat can shake things up or whether he has any back-ups in mind. It also remains to be seen what Iraq’s ambitions are but hiring a big-name coach such as Advocaat suggests that the ambition is a place at the World Cup. If so, defeat in Dubai would be a huge blow. It is time for some more aggression.
5. Syria and Lebanon can kick start their campaign
This game between the two lowest-ranked teams in Group A should not be overlooked. For Lebanon, the stage is about getting as many points as possible and seeing where the team can finish.
While Lebanon will struggle to finish in third, Syria have more realistic ambitions and were not so far away from reaching Russia 2018 last time around. There is still talent in the team and the sight of Omar Al-Somah linking up with Omar Khribin in South Korea was a heartening one. Again, had Syria showed a little more ambition in east Asia then they may have come away with something.
Now comes a much shorter trip to Amman. It is time to start winning. The talent is there to challenge but there also has to be conviction.