Wednesday, December 20, 2006
Luck of the Draw
Potential banana skins like Saudi Arabia and Qatar have been avoided, and although we now face probably the strongest of the four host nations, Graham Arnold has good reason to feel pretty confident.
Oman is one of the weaker Gulf nations, with a generally mediocre record in World Cup qualifying and other Asian competitions. In the recent Asian Games in Doha (in which football is an Under-23 competition, as at the Olympics), they finished third in their qualifying group behind China and...Iraq.
I tend to think that Iraq could actually prove a greater stumbling block than the Thai hosts, in our Asian Cup group. Despite the chaos and ongoing slaughter in their country, Iraqi football is on the up, and their achievement in reaching the final of the Asian Games - they defeated South Korea in the semis - is fair warning.
Of course, Australia has had difficulties against Iraq in the recent past. Missing their "overage" players, the Olyroos went out limply to Iraq in the quarter-finals of the Athens Olympics. In the subsequent friendly in March 2005 (a sweetener for our then-imminent Asia move), Frank Farina's senior side, at close to full strength, needed a well-taken late strike from Ahmad Elrich to overcome a dogged, compact team.
Australia's poor performance in that fixture, incidentally, helped to precipitate the infamous Farina-Orsatti bust-up.
Thailand are not to be underestimated, particularly at home in familiar conditions, but they are not quite at the level of the Asian powerhouses, or even the better Gulf nations, as yet. Topping an easy group at the Asian Games, they nevertheless went out with a whimper at the quarter-final stage, to eventual champions Qatar. Results in youth competitions are not always a good barometer, but our Under 20s had little trouble disposing of the Thais in the recent Asian Under 20 tournament in India, and in the earlier four-nation tournament in Malaysia.
Arnold has understandably stressed the need for adequate preparation for the tournament, which is to be held in July - over a month after the European club season finishes. The players will be somewhat battle-worn, of course, but a few weeks' recovery time should be sufficient to ensure reasonable energy levels. Acclimatisation is another matter; the Kuwait City experience demonstrated that this is no small concern. In Arnold's words:
"We are going to be going into a totally different environment than the European culture, which most of the players are familiar with; we are going to go into very humid and hot conditions, and we've got to make sure our preparation is just as spot on as it was for the World Cup."
Let us hope it will be.
I hope we do well, but it wouldn't surprise me in the slightest if we do not go wonderfully well.
Anybody that has followed football for more than the last 5 minutes will know that strange things happen in Championship Finals, and if we take any of our opponents for granted, we may struggle.
Having said that...... We have more than enough class to comfortably win the group, if we play well.
It may not have the prestige or depth of the Euros but, in terms of football viewing figures, apparently it's second only to the WC. (Thanks to China, I guess).
And it sure beats Oceania cups :)
Personally I thought the Japan WC game showed that the Socceroos have the presence to overpower any of the East Asian sides.
However the conditions and the motivation factor might be telling.
We should top the group, but anything past the quarters is not clear cut.