Road to Brazil proving difficult trek for Asia's qualifiers
Australia knows from bitter and very recent experience that a trip to Brazil can be harrowing.
Australia knows from bitter and very recent experience that a trip to Brazil can be harrowing. A quick taste of South America also gave Japan much to think about in June while in October the Selecao found time to nip over to East Asia and record a fairly comfortable, if slightly bruising, win over South Korea. All Brazil needs now is a test against Iran to complete the clean sweep of Asia-s qualified quartet but with the Persians unable to arrange a single warm-up game since qualifying in June, that looks unlikely.
South Korea, Japan, Iran and Australia did the hard part and qualified for the 2014 World Cup but are struggling with what is usually the relatively straightforward section of the road to the planet-s biggest tournament - that of preparation. Two have changed coaches since the deals were sealed in June; one boss is under pressure while another has had issues with getting paid.
Changing coach is a big deal any time but with the World Cup months away, it is a decision not taken lightly. Ange Postecoglou is in some ways in a similar position to Korea-s Hong Myong-bo who is also seen as a long-term appointment at a time when there is plenty going on in the short-term.
Australia knows well that Hong is still finding his feet as coach of the World Cup veterans, after all the Socceroos provided the opposition for his first ever game in charge back in July -90 minutes that has set the scene for much of what has followed. The Taeguk Warriors dominated yet a combination of poor finished and excellent Eugene Galekovic goalkeeping somehow kept the scoreline goalless.
In subsequent tests against China, Japan, Peru and Croatia, Korea had plenty of play and possession but only managed two goals. Just Haiti and Mali have been defeated. Take those two home wins out of the equation and Korea have drawn three and lost three, scoring just twice. There has been some honeymoon period for the popular Hong, captain of the 2002 semi-final team and veteran of four World Cups, especially as he came in after a poor qualification campaign (predecessor Choi Kang-hee always said he would stand down when the road to Rio ended) but if results continue to be indifferent, questions will be asked. Not long after, the criticism will come.
It is increasingly present for Japan boss Alberto Zaccheroni. Six defeats out of the last eight games against non-Asian opposition have fans and media asking questions, though the tone is , for now, more concerned than angry thanks largely to the fact that Samurai Blue has faced some genuinely tough opposition in Brazil, Italy, Uruguay etc. There is a growing perception however that the former Juventus boss is too wedded to the same starting eleven. It turns out that there is a fine line between stability and staleness. Japan admirably continue to seek tricky tests but defeats next month against Netherlands and Belgium will not go down well.
Fortunately, poor form is not always an accurate predictor of World Cup performance as Japan knows better than most. Preparation for the 2010 World Cup was nightmarish. In nine games before the Samurai Blue kicked off their South African campaign with a win over Cameroon, the team won just twice- against Hong Kong and Bahrain - and lost five, including twice to bitter rivals South Korea at home.
The second of those defeats came on May 24, the day before Takeshi Okada took his team on the journey to Africa. The anger in Saitama, the stadium where Australia drew 1-1 in June, was palpable with fans, journalists and even federation officials fearful and furious in equal measure. Yet just six weeks later, I saw a beaming Okada stride through a Roppongi hotel lobby to be treated like a king by a fawning Tokyo press pack. In the meantime, Japan had strolled to the second round and was only denied a place in the last eight by Paraguay and a penalty shootout.
There-s not much criticism coming Carlos Queiroz-s way in Iran as the Portuguese tactician has done a good job in difficult circumstances. The country-s political situation does not help with friendlies hard to arrange and training camps hard to fund. Team Melli have yet to arrange a single friendly since sealing qualification in June with a hard-fought win in South Korea. If it wasn-t for a 2015 Asian Cup qualifier with Thailand earlier in October, Iran would simply have had no football at all. Being unbeaten doesn-t sound quite as good when you aren-t playing.
For all of Asia-s four entrants at the Brazil 2014, there is much to ponder. Good preparation is always preferable but it does not guarantee good results at the World Cup and vice-versa. There is a lot of work to do over the next eight months.