Paul Marcuccitti


 
Paul Marcuccitti is a passionate soccer fan from Australia who will share his views about the World Cup in this column.

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Asian Cup qualifiers to resume



    If managed properly, confederations' international tournaments can be real showpieces. Europe has led the way with its settled calendar - two years of the European Championship and two years of the World Cup in each four year cycle.

    The success of the Euros (easily the best international football tournament after the World Cup) has presented challenges to the other confederations.

    With its long history and some great teams, the Copa America should be a great football tournament but it is, in fact, a farce. It invites teams from other confederations (a sure way of defeating the purpose of a continental championship), it has a format that rewards group phase mediocrity, and you can almost guarantee organisational chaos. Remember Argentina withdrawing in 2001? Can anyone now tell you whether the competition is held every two, three or four years? Oh, and (here's my favourite) CONMEBOL is looking at including 16 teams in the next tournament in Venezuela - that's six more teams than the confederation has. With Asia and CONCACAF also holding tournaments in mid-2007, I'm not sure where the six teams are going to come from. Africa? Europe? Oceania? (Now there's an idea. We can finally get that Uruguay v Solomon Islands match that the Socceroos denied...)

    It's no better north of the Darien Gap because CONCACAF's Gold Cup has all of the Copa America's shortcomings and the added drawback of teams missing several top players. Guest teams (from other confederations) at the Gold Cup make even less sense because they're there at the expense of CONCACAF teams. Why not hold a decent 16-team tournament once every four years? There's just enough quality - ten teams from this confederation have qualified for the World Cup finals.

    Oceania has, sadly, abolished its championship. Well it may as well have because it's now being played, home and away, over an 18-month period. Whoever finishes top becomes the Oceania champion and there are no finals. The Oceania Nations Cup will also double as World Cup qualifiers. (Although Australia has left Oceania, I still can't help caring about the much-maligned confederation. At least it isn't unique in its ability to completely screw things up.)

    The African Cup of Nations is one of the better continental championships but it is hampered by the timing of its tournaments. The finals are held, every two years, in January/February and that makes club v country battles inevitable.

    That leaves the Asian Cup. The 2004 edition was extremely controversial - so much so that next year's tournament will be a real test of credibility. Still, its fundamentals are good. Its finals are held every four years (all these tournaments should be); those finals include 16 teams; and they'll next be held in July next year. (And there will be no guest appearances by Brazil's under-23 team. Or Honduras.)

    As leap years include the Euros and the Olympics, the tournament has sensibly been moved to the year after the World Cup finals. The only problem with that was that qualifiers needed to start earlier this year - before the World Cup finals.

    With qualification beginning (for most teams) in February and ending in November, there weren't enough dates for official matches on the FIFA International Match Calendar for the full series. So when the qualifiers resume on Wednesday, teams like Japan and Australia will only field players from their domestic competitions.

    Next year's finals will be co-hosted by four nations: Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam. That leaves just 12 places to be filled by the teams that finish first and second in the six qualifying groups (which each have four teams).

    Worryingly, only 29 of the AFC's 46 teams entered the competition. The 25 that needed to go through the qualification groups needed to be trimmed by one so Pakistan and Bangladesh played off in a preliminary round. Bangladesh won the two-legged home-and-away playoff 1-0 but the Pakistanis were given a reprieve when Sri Lanka withdrew from the tournament.

    The draw for the qualification groups began with teams in four pots with Pot A being the strongest and Pot D the weakest. The pots were as follows:

Pot A: Bahrain, China, Iran, Japan, Jordan and Uzbekistan.
Pot B: Iraq, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and South Korea.
Pot C: Hong Kong, Lebanon, Singapore, Syria, United Arab Emirates and Yemen.
Pot D: Australia, India, Palestine, Sri Lanka, Taiwan and Pakistan or Bangladesh.

    You might be wondering how on earth Australia ended up in the weakest pot and why Saudi Arabia and South Korea are not in Pot A. It's simply because there is only one criterion for seeding teams - performance in the last Asian Cup. In 2004, Saudi Arabia made a first round exit, South Korea went out in the quarter-finals, and Australia was not yet a member of the AFC.

    Nevertheless, the draw could have produced a group that included three teams that qualified for the 2006 World Cup finals (and that would have meant that at least one would fail to reach the Asian Cup finals). It didn't happen but, as if to prove that even Asian Cup qualifiers can have a Group of Death, Australia was drawn to meet Bahrain and Kuwait in Group D.

    It's time to look at the groups, how they stand at the moment, and who should join Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam in the finals. Most teams have already played twice but the five nations that qualified for Germany 2006 were all allowed to postpone one match until after those finals.


GROUP A


P W D L F-A Pts Japan 1 1 0 0 6-0 3 Saudi Arabia 1 1 0 0 4-0 3 Yemen 2 1 0 1 3-4 3 India 2 0 0 2 0-9 0
Matches on 16 August: India v Saudi Arabia and Japan v Yemen

    This group is as straightforward as they come. Yemen can spark occasionally but you wouldn't expect them to achieve more than perhaps a surprise draw against one of the top two teams. I didn't see the Saudis' 4-0 victory in Yemen but accounts of the game suggest that the final score was a little flattering to the winners. The Indians have now conceded 17 goals in their last three matches against Japan after also being grouped with them in 2006 World Cup qualifiers. (Australia is going to have to break one of the laws of Asian sport - if you play serious cricket your national football team is rubbish.) Don't expect any shocks in Group A. Japan and Saudi Arabia should qualify easily.


GROUP B


P W D L F-A Pts Iran 1 1 0 0 4-0 3 Syria 2 1 0 1 5-2 3 South Korea 1 1 0 0 2-1 3 Chinese Taipei 2 0 0 2 0-8 0
Matches on 16 August: Chinese Taipei v South Korea and Iran v Syria

    Another group featuring two teams that qualified for Germany. Syria should be a stronger third seed than Yemen but the Syrians missed a chance of getting a result in their opening qualifier. At home, Syria drew level with South Korea in the second half but went behind again a minute later and the final score was 1-2. Now Syria goes to the Azadi Stadium to face Iran after a run of poor results in friendlies. I expect Iran to win and all but settle the group's outcome: Iran and South Korea to qualify.


GROUP C


P W D L F-A Pts UAE 2 2 0 0 5-1 6 Oman 2 1 0 1 3-1 3 Jordan 2 1 0 1 3-3 3 Pakistan 2 0 0 2 1-7 0
Matches on 16 August: Pakistan v Oman and Jordan v UAE

    Oman's surprising 3-0 home win over the Jordanians and United Arab Emirates' strong early form have blown this group open. Jordan reached the quarter-finals of the 2004 Asian Cup and was controversially eliminated by Japan after a penalty shootout. It would be a real shock if Jordan failed to qualify for 2007. But the top three teams in this group all reached the 2004 finals so someone has to miss out. After good results in recent friendlies, the Jordanians seem to have their act together again and I'll back them to qualify with UAE.


GROUP D


P W D L F-A Pts Australia 1 1 0 0 3-1 3 Kuwait 1 0 1 0 0-0 1 Bahrain 2 0 1 1 3-1 1 Lebanon 0 0 0 0 0-0 0
Match on 16 August: Australia v Kuwait

    With Australia technically the bottom seed, Group D loomed as the most interesting in the qualification series. Lebanon, probably the least likely of the four to qualify, spiced things up further by holding Kuwait to a draw on the opening day. But recent events have forced Lebanon to pull out of the tournament so that result has now been cancelled. With the top two going to the finals and only three teams left in the group, Australia can clinch qualification by defeating Kuwait in Sydney on Wednesday night. It won't be easy because the Socceroos' team will be drawn from players from the Australian league and a few will be winning their first caps. Even if they don't get three points on Wednesday, the Aussies should eventually qualify. It's a tough call but I'll pick Kuwait to edge Bahrain out for the other spot despite only managing a goalless draw when the teams met in Kuwait.


GROUP E


P W D L F-A Pts China 2 1 0 1 3-2 3 Singapore 2 1 0 1 2-1 3 Iraq 2 1 0 1 2-3 3 Palestine 2 1 0 1 1-2 3
Match on 16 August: China v Singapore
Match on 17 August: Palestine v Iraq

    What happens next in this group? On day one, Singapore stunned Iraq while China defeated Palestine. Then the two losers beat the two winners: Iraq defeated China and Palestine scored the only goal of its match against Singapore. You'd expect China and Iraq to be favourites here - I'll pick them to be the teams that eventually qualify - and the picture might become a little clearer after this week's games. But I won't be putting any money on anything in this group. Complicating matters is the recent resignation of Iraq's coach who recently received death threats and took his family away from Baghdad. I understand that Iraq's football association has refused to accept his resignation.


GROUP F


P W D L F-A Pts Qatar 2 2 0 0 5-1 6 Uzbekistan 2 1 0 1 6-2 3 Hong Kong 2 1 0 1 1-3 3 Bangladesh 2 0 0 2 0-6 0
Matches on 16 August: Bangladesh v Qatar and Uzbekistan v Hong Kong

    Qatar and Uzbekistan should qualify from Group F easily. Hong Kong went down 0-3 to Qatar at home and is unlikely to take anything from the trip to Uzbekistan. The Uzbeks should be the strongest team in this group but they lost in Qatar after taking the lead. World Cup trivia buffs should know that Uzbekistan is now being coached by Valeri Nepomniatchi. There is also some 1990 World Cup nostalgia in Group A with the great Ivica Osim replacing Zico as coach of Japan.



 

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