Sunday, November 25, 2007
For the first time, Australian football aficionados will have their attention focused on the Asian draw. The initial qualifying rounds produced few surprises, with perhaps Singapore the only real surprise entrant into the third round. Now things start to get serious.
All the major seeds will be hoping to avoid Iraq, who are surprisingly placed in the third qualifying "pot" (seeding group), despite their victory in the Asian Cup. Syria, in the fourth pot, thumped eleven goals past Indonesia in the second qualifying round (and, don't forget, Indonesia came within an 89th-minute miss of qualifying for the Asian Cup quarter-finals), and hence look like another team to be wary of.
Thankfully, the top two teams in this third group stage will qualify for the final round of matches, a change from the system employed in the last two Asian qualifying cycles, which saw some favoured sides knocked out prematurely.
The top European-based players have taken the opportunity to make their feelings known once again about their likely availability (or rather, unavailability). Fair enough in the case of the first two matches (although, as I've mentioned before, an away game in Syria or Lebanon is much more convenient for the Euro crew than for the A-Leaguers), but from then on, it's surely a test of who really wants to be part of the national side for the long Asian haul.
There seems to be some confusion as to the dates of the third round qualifiers; the Wikipedia article linked above has the third round stretching until November of next year, while this summary, as well as the original AFC communiqué, suggests that the process will be over by September, with two matches held, sensibly, in the European hiatus in June. I'm inclined to believe the latter version.
And if that latter version is true, then there are only two games - the first two - on friendly dates. After that, if the Euro "stars" choose to make themselves unavailable, one would have to question whether they are up for it. The Asian Cup showed very clearly that some of the celebrated Class of 2006 are not necessarily to be trusted when their hearts aren't in it.
And that doesn't necessarily mean heading only for the A-League for replacements, either. The European second tier may yet end up playing a crucial role in the 2010 campaign.