Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Shooting From the Hip: AFC Second Round

You don't get far in this world playing it cautiously. It's as much a part of the Montana spirit as speed-limit free highways and sales-tax-free beef jerky.

So when it comes to predictions, I'll shoot from the hip. Take a chance when I'm not exactly sure. Be blunt and direct and optimistic when I can be.

The second round of Asian qualifying was announced on Tuesday, and while it won't start for another month and won't end for another year, I figured it was best to make predictions within 48 hours.

The nearly-year long second round, 8 groups of 5 will play home and away. The winners, and the top four runners up, will move on to the final round. (That's where your odds as one team in 2 groups of 6 get a heck of a lot better.)

So who will reach those lofty heights?

Group A: UAE, Saudi Arabia, Palestine, Timor-Leste, Malaysia
Winner: The Saudis have the higher profile and the richer pedigree, but the United Arab Emirates has had the better run of form lately. With probably the softest competition around them, I'd guess Zayed's Sons have the best chance.

Dark Horse: Set aside the geopolitical turmoil and the fact that their leaders seem hell bent on getting Israel kicked out of FIFA, but Palestine likely offers the best chance at an upset. A squad built on non-local players will never coalesce perfectly, but their familiarity with top flight squads (as seen in a trip to the the AFC Cup in January) will serve them well.
Group B: Australia, Jordan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Bangladesh
Winner: This isn't quite a tap-in for The Socceroos but it's close. One of the dominant sides in Asia will have no trouble handling the rivals, the only real match to watch will be against Jordan.
A Socceroo tap in
Dark Horse: Speaking of Jordan, "The Chivalrous" have a strong case to make as one of the top sides in West Asia. They've had great fortune against the lesser sides of Asia (which definitely includes the Bangladeshis, Tajiks and Kyrgyzseseses--okay the Kyrgyz no offense meant), and by cutting their teeth in an endless series of friendlies against higher profile foes they'll keep that strength, take their lumps against Australia and move along.
Group C: China, Qatar, Maldives, Bhutan, Hong Kong
Winner: Loathe as I am to give them any credit, Qatar has put just about everything they have into developing a team that will match their stadia by 2022. And in case you're wondering, yes that does include pressuring foreigners into service (including Frenchman Dame Traore, Ghanaian Mohammad Muntari and Brazilian Luiz Junior). A strong 2014 was undercut by a truly underwhelming performance in the Asian Cup, but I think they'll be under pressure to get close this cycle--so they don't become the first team since Italy in 1934--the second cup ever--to host a world cup without having played in one before.

Dark Horse: I'm absolutely drinking Bhutan's Kool-Aid, but I don't care. The low profile, lack of film, high altitude home matches and general "do you believe in miracles vibe" makes the land of the Thunder Dragon an easy squad to root for. In the end they'd need to take points at home against both China and Qatar and sweep all matches against Maldives and Hong Kong, but hey, crazier things have happened.
Group D: Iran, Oman, India, Turkmenistan, Guam
Winner: With or without the recently departed Carlos Quieroz, Iran's got too much talent to miss out in this group. A debacle during a penalty shoot out at the Asian Cup this January shouldn't distract from the fact that they were easy front runners at the tournament and should be for this one as well. If they put their minds to it, I'm sure that young striking talents like Sardar Azmoun and Karim Ansarfarid could find some salient suggestions for the nuclear deal too.
Go Go Guam!
Dark Horse: Much as I love plumping for India (where I lived and worked for a few years), the baffling dark horse to root for is Guam. The rare American protectorate that actually IS an underdog, Guam garnered big headlines when they drew at higher profile Singapore. A squad filled with American college kids and MLS developmental talents might not do much against even average Asian sides like a dangerous Omani crew. But they are the ultimate dark horse.
Group E: Japan, Syria, Afghanistan, Singapore, Cambodia
Winner: It will take a lot for any of these teams to meaningfully challenge Japan. The Blue Samurai got an excellent draw despite a lackluster World Cup and Asian Cup. Still, they're at the top of the Asian standings and even if they don't consistently bring back European based players they should be able to handle these qualification rivals.

Dark Horse: If one of the other four sides can put together a consistent run against the other three they could pull a surprise especially with other second-tier teams (and Japan) playing so inconsistently. At a guess, I'd put money on Singapore which boasts a young squad with some internationally based players and more who work together at Lions XII bringing cohesion and confidence into the mix (not to mention avoiding the ...but when you lose to whole confidence is undermined.
Group F: Iraq, Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia, Chinese Taipei
Winner: Credit where it's due, Iraq consistently makes the best of an unusual and often trying situation. They've played the top teams in Asia very closely and make a habit of taking lower-ranked rivals seriously. A few foreign based players (including the Columbus Crew's Justin Meram) show continued promise and growth.

From Left to Right: Chanathip Songkrasin and Kroekrit Thawikan
Dark Horse: The biggest challenge for Iraq will be the frequent long-distance hauls to South East Asia. So the question for a dark horse will be any team who can boast a difficult home environment (to steal a win against the favorites) and real sway over regional rivals. By that standard Thailand is your most likely nominee (just winning the South East Asia Suzuki Cup, boasting a young and growing squad, consistent at home), but that's not anything I'd wager heavily on.
Group G: Korea Republic, Kuwait, Lebanon, Myanmar, Laos
Winner: Korea is still one of the preeminent powers in Asian football, perpetual status as bridesmaid's not withstanding. Their growing influence in Europe doesn't hurt matters, world cup qualification is now expected and the rivals here won't slow that down.

Dark Horse: Right now the hottest team for fans of Asian underdogs is Bhutan, but Lebanon was pulling the Cinderella story during the 2014 cycle. They're back again against two teams they beat on the road during the last set of qualifiers, higher regarded Kuwait and Korea. Though it ended with whimper in the final round of qualifying, the Cedars stood tall, and while Kuwait's a more likely runner-up/qualifier. Lebanon is still where my loyalty lies.
Group H: Uzbekistan, Bahrain, Philippines, DPR Korea, Yemen
Winner: The Uzbeks have long been a favorite of this blog. After all there's a strong corps of players being augmented by solid youth talents from a growing domestic league. They were in the hunt for a World Cup Spot until the final weeks of the last cycle, and they played well in the Asian Cup this January. Sure their president might be a nut job who made his daughters pop stars, ambassadors, corporate honchos, heirs apparent to the presidency, and then (at least in one case) political prisoners. But still, how 'bout that team, eh?

At least he didn't name them manager
Dark Horse: Maybe it's that they're the only reasonable country in the group. Maybe it's that their nickname is "the Street Dogs". Maybe it's that I'm afraid of Manny Pacquiao. But I feel like the Philippines might be poised for a surprising finish. Bahrain and Korea are both on the slide and Yemen is in turmoil while the Philippines has seen steady results and, in goal keeper Neil Ethridge, boast the only Chelsea trainee in the whole group.

12 Teams advancing to third Round (** signifies Top 4 runner up)
South Korea
**The Philippines

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