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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The marvellous month of June

    We're now around halfway between the most recent World Cup finals in Germany and the next edition in South Africa. To mark the occasion, FIFA has scheduled a feast of international football for the month of June.

    Indeed, a total of 168 World Cup qualifiers (if we use poetic licence to count May 31 in the month of June) are coming our way, spread around every confederation except UEFA (which will be presenting its own international carnival - the 31 matches of Euro 2008).

    In my home confederation of Asia, the marvellous month of June will eliminate 10 teams from the qualification race while 10 others progress to the final group phase.

    Now that I think about it, that's just a little bit scary. You see, my country, Australia, could easily be eliminated in a few weeks' time. And elimination would be followed by three to four years of World Cup wilderness before 2014 qualifiers.

    Although Australia's qualification for 2006 was its first for 32 years, we usually weren't eliminated in previous World Cups until the November before the finals. That's because the Socceroos would inevitably win Oceania and participate in an intercontinental playoff.

    This is the reality that regular Asian qualifiers like Japan, South Korea and Saudi Arabia also face. A couple of poor performances in these next few weeks could result in a shock early elimination.

    You may think it's unlikely but there's enough quality around the rest of Asia to at least make life uncomfortable for its top teams. In the last round of qualification matches in March, the four teams I've mentioned so far and Iran (also qualifiers for 2006) all failed to win. Underestimate Syria, Bahrain or North Korea at your peril.

    Before I look at each group, an apology. In my last column, while criticising aspects of Asia's qualification system, I wrote the following paragraph:

The Asian team that ends up playing the Oceania winner will have played at least 18 matches in its effort to qualify; possibly 20 or 22 if it had to play in the early knockout rounds. And you thought qualifying through CONMEBOL was a marathon.

    I must have temporarily forgotten how to count. The numbers 18, 20 and 22 should have been 16, 18 and 20.

    Nevertheless I remain convinced that 4-team groups would be immeasurably better (for the next phase of Asian qualifying) than the proposed 5-team groups.

Group 1:
P W D L F A Pts Australia 2 1 1 0 3 0 4 Qatar 2 1 0 1 2 3 3 China 2 0 2 0 1 1 2 Iraq 2 0 1 1 1 3 1
    Qatar's shock home win against the Iraqis has blown Group 1 open. The Asian champions are on the mat and face Australia in their next two matches. Not helping Iraq's preparation has been FIFA's suspension - and subsequent restoration - of its football association. The bizarre and (it has to be said) dubious turn of events placed the June 1 qualifier between Australia and Iraq in doubt until Sepp Blatter confirmed that it would go ahead just 72 hours before kick off.

    The uncertainty would have been the last thing Iraq's footballers needed as they're already under pressure with just one point from their opening two games. But you don't win the Asian Cup by accident, and one suspects the Iraqis know a thing or two about adversity, so don't write them off just yet.

    Australia was humbled by Iraq last year but the Socceroos look more settled now. Indeed, the organisation of Dutch coach Pim Verbeek seems to be turning Australia's defence (which is so often a weakness) into a strength. Australia has not conceded a single goal in his four matches in charge.

    The two upcoming matches between Qatar and China will tell us much about the Qataris. They might fancy their chances as China has clearly failed to build on its qualification for the 2002 finals and really struggles in attack.

    With their handful of South American born players, Qatar may in fact have the more potent forward line. And the impressive home win over Iraq might even make the small gulf country a slight favourite against China in the first of the nations' two meetings in Doha.

Group 2:
P W D L F A Pts Bahrain 2 2 0 0 2 0 6 Japan 2 1 0 1 4 2 3 Oman 2 1 0 1 1 1 3 Thailand 2 0 0 2 1 5 0
    The Japanese might have a little problem here. After their surprising loss in Bahrain, they're tied on points with Oman - the team they face in their next two matches. The Omanis have developed into the kind of team that concedes few goals (though they generally score even less). Japan should have too much class but certainly wouldn't want to concede first in either game.

    Bahrain is now in pole position with 6 points out of 6 and its next two matches against Thailand. The Thais played well in last year's Asian Cup but their home loss to Oman was a big blow to their hopes of progressing to the next round. Thailand will be buoyed by a recent home win in a friendly against Iraq but I still expect Bahrain to get at least 4 points out of the upcoming meetings between the two teams. That might even be enough to guarantee the small island nation a place in the final group stage.

Group 3:
P W D L F A Pts Korea Republic 2 1 1 0 4 0 4 Korea DPR 2 1 1 0 1 0 4 Jordan 2 1 0 1 2 1 3 Turkmenistan 2 0 0 2 0 6 0
    After winning their opening games in Group 3, the two Koreas met and drew 0-0. It was North Korea's home match but it was moved from Pyongyang to Shanghai in China after the North Koreans decided that they wouldn't play the South Korean anthem or fly the South Korean flag at the game. (Don't you love this confederation?)

    The North Koreans have a golden chance to get at least a foot in the next round with their next two matches against Turkmenistan, one of the weaker teams remaining in Asia's World Cup qualifiers.

    Only the Jordanians might upset a Korean double in this group but their recent results have been poor. South Korea should get the better of the upcoming meetings between the two teams.

Group 4:
P W D L F A Pts Uzbekistan 2 2 0 0 4 0 6 Singapore 2 1 0 1 2 2 3 Saudi Arabia 2 1 0 1 2 3 3 Lebanon 2 0 0 2 0 3 0
    Uzbekistan's loss to Saudi Arabia in last year's Asian Cup quarter finals was one of football's most unjust results. So the Uzbeks' 3-0 demolition of the Saudis in March must have been sweet indeed.

    The central Asian nation will progress to the next round and don't be too surprised if it's a real contender for qualification for South Africa.

    The Uzbeks now face two games against Singapore which moved level on points with the Saudis after a win over Lebanon. It will probably be too big a test for the Singaporeans despite their recent improvement.

    Two matches against struggling Lebanon are likely to put the Saudis back on track. Understandably, given the country's difficulties in recent years, the Lebanese have declined since their strong performance in the 2006 World Cup qualifiers.

Group 5:
P W D L F A Pts UAE 2 1 1 0 3 1 4 Iran 2 0 2 0 2 2 2 Syria 2 0 2 0 1 1 2 Kuwait 2 0 1 1 2 4 1
    Next up in the unpredictable Group 5 we have two meetings between UAE and Iran and two meetings between Syria and Kuwait.

    And what else can I say? All results are possible here. Iran just doesn't look like a favourite at the moment having failed to win either of its two qualifiers so far; and the other three teams are of similar standard.

    The nightmare scenario for the Iranians might be that the UAE, the only Group 5 team with a win so far, might risk little and be happy to take draws against them while one of Syria and Kuwait picks up a bag of points in its next two games.

    There isn't much between Syria and Kuwait but I'd give the Syrians an edge - they've certainly performed better in recent friendlies.



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