Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Ever so close

As mentioned earlier on this very blog, Asia's long road to the 2018 World Cup in Russia is only a few weeks away from kicking off. The draw for the second round of World Cup/Asian Cup qualifying was Tuesday, and matches start in mid-June.

How close did I come to nailing one of the groups? Let's just say that if this was a Powerball drawing, I would've easily made back my investment.

Here's the draw:

Group A
UAE, Saudi Arabia, Palestine, East Timor, Malaysia
One team away from the UAE's worst-case scenario. The Saudis and Palestine will make life difficult for Mahdi Ali's side, but the Mighty Whites should advance without too much trouble. Still, it might be somewhat telling that Mahdi Ali is already complaining about a lack of "cooperation" from the Arabian Gulf League.

Group B
Australia, Jordan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Bangladesh
Never mind the hand-wringing -- if Australia do anything other than win this group going away, it's a massive upset. This is a straight shootout between the Aussies and Jordan. I watched Kyrgyzstan in person at last year's AFC Challenge Cup, and even with their African imports, the most they can hope to be is the best of the rest.

Group C
China, Qatar, Maldives, Bhutan, Hong Kong
Another group that, at first glance, looks to be a race between the top two seeds. If China or Qatar fail to make the third round of World Cup qualifying, it would be a massive blow -- Chinese football is surging domestically, regionally and internationally, so missing out would be a most unwelcome speed bump, while Qatar stumbling would make them the first World Cup hosts to never have qualified before hosting. The Maldives have a good player in Ali Ashfaq; problem is, there's only one of him. Bhutan will continue riding being Asia's feel-good story and, hopefully, gain valuable international experience and exposure.

Group D
Iran, Oman, India, Turkmenistan, Guam
A kindly draw for Iran just when they needed one, considering the turmoil of recent events. Oman will do well to make Iran sweat a little over finishing first, and no one else in the group should inspire much fear. Guam are on the up, but anything other than third place would be asking too much too soon.

Group E
Japan, Syria, Afghanistan, Singapore, Cambodia
A good draw for Vahid Halilhodzic to work out his best Japan side before things get too difficult. Maybe start with finding some reliable goal-scorers? Syria will probably have other matters on their minds for much of qualifying, and it would not be entirely unthinkable for them to be looking up at Afghanistan.

Group F
Iraq, Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia, Taiwan
It's a mini-Suzuki Cup in a tournament with a much wider audience. Can Vietnam, Thailand or Indonesia push Iraq and maybe even threaten an upset? It's not all that likely, but if I had to back one of those three to do it, it'd be Thailand. Indonesia really should be at that level, but it looks like they're falling back into old, bad habits. Anyone who drops points against Taiwan will have a lot of explaining to do.

Group G
South Korea, Kuwait, Lebanon, Burma, Laos
South Korea will win this group, without question. The more interesting matter is second place -- watch out for Lebanon sneaking up on Kuwait. Burma have made some noise recently in age-group tournaments, but it's a little early for those fruits to ripen at this level.

Group H
Uzbekistan, Bahrain, Philippines, North Korea, Yemen
The reaction in the Philippines to this draw was, to say the least, less than positive. I'm not so sure they should despair just yet -- it certainly could've been worse. Uzbekistan seem to keep chugging along without ever impressing that much, while Bahrain and North Korea, while solid sides, are not without flaws. For Yemen, see Syria in Group E. The Philippines could yet have a say in who advances out of this group, provided they can consistently assemble their best squad and avoid any needless internal turmoil.

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