Asian World Cup Qualifiers: Better than the Euro’s?
The purpose of this blog wasn’t just to talk about Saints, but also highlight football’s progress across Asia. Having lived out here for almost 10 years, it has been interesting watching the rise of the game. When the Australians moved into the Asian confederation a few years ago, it really raised the profile and increased the competition. Slowly, the other Asian nations are starting to respond and raise their level of performance.
However, the Qualifiers are still dominated by the Big Two, plus Australia, with South Korea and Japan continuing their stranglehold. While the Euro’s have been on, the time difference means watching them is a little bit of a chore (I work from 7am most days and the matches start at 1am over here!), but meanwhile, I have been enjoying the start of the World Cup 2014 Asian Qualifiers.
We are at the final group stage here, having completed the two leg Preliminary Qualifiers which took place last year (I’ll have a look at how Philippines got on in a later article). Japan and Australian are drawn in one group, with Korea in the other. There are two groups made up of 5 finalists each. The top 2 qualify automatically, while the 3rd place teams will playoff to decide who challenges a South American team for the final place in Brazil. Korea are drawn with Iran, Qatar, Uzbekistan and Lebanon, while Japan and Australia are paired with Iraq, Oman and Jordan.
I have watched Japan in 3 matches against Oman, Jordan, and against the Soccero’s, and they have dominated. Aside from a serious world class striker they look a brilliant side, with a midfield made up of Keisuke Honda, Yasuhito Endō, Makoto Hasebe of Wolfsburg, and Shinji Kagawa who has just joined Manchester Utd.
Despite the profile of Kagawa since joining Utd, the star in my opinion is 26 year old Keisuke Honda. The pinup boy of Japanese football, he currently plays for CSKA Moscow where he is a solid regular. He is a 6ft tall attacking midfielder, who has a record of around 1 in every 4 games, at international and club level. His power and skill on the ball tears open defences. Expect to see him in England at some point, as he is ideally suited to the English game.
Endo and Hasebe provide a bit of steal to the midfield, although Endo, although now a veteran, with 118 caps, is still a force going forward. The Japanese defence also looks pretty decent, with Atsuto Uchida and Yuto Nagatomo making up the central defence – both play in Europe with Schalke and Inter Milan respectively. A relative newcomer to the national side Yuzo Kurihara, who plays in the Japanese league for Yokohama has also been pretty good, especially at set pieces, scoring twice in two games, but also getting himself sent off against Australia (although more on that latter – the ref was shocking).
Upfront seems to be the issue though, cause despite Kagawa, Honda and Endo providing chance after chance, their main striker Shinji Okazaki is, in my opinion, a rich mans Paddy Connolly! Despite an international record of 28 goals in 54 games, he only has a 1 in 4 record for his German club side Stuttgart (although to be fair, he is a regular there), and most his goals in International games come against the minnows of Asian Football. However, if they could find another striker I have no doubt Japan would be serious challengers come 2014…
Onto Australia and they have been hard to judge. They have certainly lost the goals of Harry Kewell and Mark Viduka and are yet to replace them. Both of their main strikers, Thompson and Kennedy play for Asian club sides, and despite 1 in 2 goal records at International level, you have to take into account the quality of opposition! They are also entering their 30’s. The midfield relies heavily on Tim Cahill of Everton, not just for his goals but his quality too. The rest of the midfield is made up on English Championship standard players, with Mile Jedinak of Crystal Palace and Neil Kilkenny of Bristol City. Into defence and they are also relying on their golden oldies, with Captain Lucas Neill now 34 and with no club, while Luke Wilkshire is 30, and David Carney, who you might remember from Blackpool’s Premier League campaign is also approaching the big THREE O.
One player who has looked good in the games I have seen him though is Nikita Rukavytsya, who plays in Germany for Hertha Berlin where he has had a decent season, despite Berlin being relegated back to the 2nd German division. He is 24 years old, so still has time on his side, despite only making 7 appearances for the Soccerro’s. Primarily a winger, he is quick and powerful at 6ft and could be one to watch… wonder if he fancies a loan spell at the Super Saintees?!
The game last weekend between Japan and Australia ended 1-1, played in Australia, although the Japanese dominated and should have won. The game was ruined by ridiculous refereeing (seriously, it made Hugh Dallas look AWESOME!), sending off Aussie sub Mark Milligan for trying to kick the ball from a cross (he didn’t make any contact with any player – the referee booked him and then a few minutes later realised he’d already booked him and then went to send him off) and then awarding the Soccero’s a penalty for, well, I’m still trying to work it out. Even the Aussie’s looked confused! A few minutes later Japanese defender Uchida was skinned and while lying on the floor grabbed the ball with his hands, queuing the commentator to pronounce that ‘the referee has lost the plot‘. Worryingly, Khalil al-Ghamdi of Saudi Arabia,is one of the top ref’s in the Asian confederation… GULP! Already booked, Uchida somehow avoided a red card, although the ref made sure they finished with 10 men each by then giving Kurihara a second yellow for a nothing challenge, after he had earlier given the Japanese the lead.
All in all, a great game, and I seriously doubt Sweden v England tonight (tomorrow AM for me) will be anywhere near as entertaining!