Friday, March 9, 2012
Asia's twin titans go head to head
Zac knows? Or does he? Since taking over Japan's national team in September 2010, Alberto Zaccheroni may not have put a foot wrong but he was accused of taking one off the pedal recently as he led Samurai Blue to back-to-back defeats against North Korea and Uzbekistan in the penultimate round of qualification for the 2014 World Cup. The team had already sealed a place in the final round so the losses meant little in that respect, but it did cost the continental champions their status as joint top seeds for the final round draw.
So when the ceremonies to divide the ten surviving teams into two groups - with the top two from each going to Brazil; the two third-placed teams meet to decide who plays off against a CONMEBOL side - began in Kuala Lumpur on Friday, Japan, who had fallen below South Korea in FIFA rankings on Wednesday for the first time in three years, found themselves placed in Group B with Australia. Despite the two powerhouses facing each other, both teams, who also take on Iraq, Jordan and Oman, will be confident of making it to Brazil. Group A with South Korea, Iran, Uzbekistan, Qatar and Lebanon is tougher to call.
When Tim Cahill and John Aloisi scored three times in six minutes six years ago in Kaiserslautern, they didn't just give Australia a first ever World Cup win and break Japanese hearts, they started a meaningful relationship. If Germany 2006 was a disaster, Japan had their revenge in Doha in January 2011 with a 1-0 win in the Asian Cup final; Tadanari Lee scoring a fabulous extra time winner.
"Australia are a good team and they are a great rival of ours," said Japan Football Association technical director Hiromi Hara. "We have played against Australia away on two occasions before so it's going to be essential for us to win the first away match against them. In the final round there are no easy teams so we will just focus on each match and try and win so we can qualify."
The two also met in qualification for the 2010 World Cup. Australia won at home but by that time both teams had already booked their spots in South Africa, while earlier they played out a goalless draw in Yokohama. It was a cagey affair. It remains to be seen what happens when they meet down under on June 12, but by that time Japan will have played twice and Australia once and, if things have gone the East Asians' way, it could be an opportunity to take a big lead at the top of the group and put pressure on the Socceroos. How Zaccheroni and Aussie boss Holger Osieck approach the game will be key.
That does not mean the group is all about the two big boys and while Osieck has coached in Japan and knows the team well, Zico has coached Japan and knows the team even better. Now in charge of Iraq, the Brazilian is expected to present the main challenge to the big two. "I'm very excited about going to Japan," said the Brazilian who played and managed J-League powerhouse Kashima Antlers before taking Japan to the 2004 Asian Cup title and then the 2006 nightmare.
"I have a strong relationship with the Japanese people and the players in the team now, some of them I picked for the team for the first time. They're a big team and it will be incredible. I played against Brazil when I was Japan coach at the FIFA World Cup in Germany and now I'm playing against Japan with Iraq - it's incredible."
Iraq memorably won the 2007 Asian Cup, beating Australia along the way, but have not quite hit the same heights since, though with constant reports of player unrest this is perhaps not a surprise.
The Desert Foxes didn't top their group. That honour went to Jordan and the next few months will show how good Asia's most improved team in recent times - coached by Iraqi legend Adnan Hamad - really are. They have given Japan problems in the past but like the other team in the group, Oman, tricky in Muscat, much less so away, would be delighted to finish third.
While it is difficult to imagine anything other than a top two finish for the twin titans of Group B, the other pot looks to be much more open; Uzbekistan can be thanked for that. Japan and Australia may not be delighted to see each other again but both will be happy to miss the Central Asians, especially Japan who struggled against the team home and away in the penultimate stage. Uzbekistan are knocking on the door that houses Asia's top teams.
There is a hope for Korea and Iran in that the Uzbeks have been doing that for some time but when the crunch comes, the team just can't take that final step. Since the Soviet Union collapsed, Uzbekistan have tried to qualify for the World Cup four times. Four times they reached the final round but still they are waiting for a first appearance on the global stage.
Korea always qualify, well at least they have every time since 1986. There was some sense of relief that they missed Japan but not too much as the prospect of another trip to Tehran is hardly an enticing one. This rivalry with Iran is an unusual one in Asian football in that it is, like Australia and Japan, purely about football. The two nations at either end of the giant continent have met at the quarter-final stage of every Asian Cup since 1996. They also played each other in qualification for the last World Cup. Both ended 1-1 and both had late equalisers from Park Ji-Sung.
The Manchester United man has retired from international football while former Manchester United assistant manager Carlos Queiroz steered Team Melli through the last round with ease. "I think we have a good chance," said the ex-Real Madrid boss. "We have a good team, we have good players but the most important thing now is the preparation plan to support our goals and our dreams on this road to the World Cup 2014. This is what we need to concentrate on now and that's what we need to focus on, to prepare the Iranian national team."
Korea will be looking to erase memories of their uncertain performances in the penultimate stage that saw Asia's most successful World Cup team lose in Lebanon. That cost Cho Kwang-Rae his job, but fans and media alike are feeling a little more confident in replacement Choi Kang-Hee. Being drawn against Lebanon again will give the players a chance to exact some measure of revenge.
It is difficult to see the Cedars, in the final round for the first time, managing to finish in the top three, never mind the automatic places but Qatar will be aiming to do so. The 2022 hosts are desperate to qualify for the competition before it comes to their shores ten years from now.
This is as good a chance as they will have, for there are always uncertainties in Asia. The three games in the first half of June have teams racing around the continent. Australia are in Oman on June 8 and then host Japan four days later.
You have to move fast in this fast-moving continent or you get left behind. The only time you don't is when you drop out of the top seeds but still get a group that is, just, more to your liking. Perhaps Zac knew after all.