China pose real threat as Socceroos hit the road again on journey to Qatar
China and Vietnam: the first part of the final stretch on the road to Qatar pits Australia against two of the most improved and interesting teams in Asia. As has been the case for the past 18 months, however, Covid-19 casts a shadow over the qualification for the 2022 World Cup, and will continue to do so until it finishes – we hope – in March.
The global pandemic meant that the second half of the second round of qualification was delayed for more than a year. By the time it resumed in June, Australia had to play the final four games in Kuwait. As the first four had already been won back in the days of normality, Graham Arnold’s men comfortably secured top spot and a place in the third round with China and Vietnam as well as Japan, Oman and Saudi Arabia. Group B starts on Thursday and ends with the top two in the six-team group going to Qatar. Finish third, as Australia did last time around, and the play-offs await.
The ultimate destination is Doha and that is also the venue of Thursday’s game against China. It should have been Australia but the country’s strict entry requirements and quarantine inevitably resulted in the game being moved. Football Australia boss James Johnson spoke of the importance of home advantage in World Cup qualification, understandable comments given Australia have never lost a home qualifier since joining Asia in 2006 apart from a dead rubber against China in 2008.
If China are looking stronger than usual, then that is nothing compared to Vietnam
Despite that win, China will be delighted not to head down under. Playing Australia in a quiet stadium in Doha is obviously a much different proposition than Sydney or Melbourne. Team Dragon fancy their chances in West Asia.
For one thing, preparation is top notch. Arnold must look at his opposite number Li Tie with envy. Li does not have to worry about far-flung players as only one of his 23, Wu Lei at Espanyol, is coming from overseas. All the rest spent 12 days in a Shanghai training camp before leaving for Doha last Thursday. The former Everton player does not have to worry about Chinese Super League clubs for the four games in October and November either as the league has been suspended from 15 August to 1 December.
Chinese preparation has, however, been good in the past but this time, the team is different. For one thing, it is a real team, with Li using the ample time with, and proximity to, his players to create a pseudo-club atmosphere and mentality. That was evident in May and June when China, desperate to add a second World Cup appearance to their 2002 effort, rallied from a poor start to qualification to win the last four games.
There has been much written about the financial issues in the Chinese Super League but there has been an upside to the departure of some big foreign names such as Hulk, Paulinho and Renato Augusto (the latter two were allowed to leave as they could not enter the country due to Covid). It has led to more of a focus on domestic-based players with young forwards like Guo Tianyu and Zhang Yuning getting more minutes, more goals and more dangerous.
If China are looking stronger than usual, then that is nothing compared to Vietnam. If the global pandemic means Australia have to give up home advantage in the first game at least, it also means that instead of having to deal with a raucously passionate 40,000 fans in Hanoi, who had been looking forward to a first ever home game at this stage of qualification against a powerhouse, the stands will be empty.
Robbed of their 12th and perhaps even 13th man, there is still plenty of determination in the lowest-ranked team in the group. Vietnam have often had talent before but a greater attention to youth development – aided by former Japan and South Africa coach Philippe Troussier – has resulted in more and better players like midfielder Nguyen Quang Hai coming through. Many of these grew up together and united the nation in reaching the final of the Asia U-23 Championships in 2018, the last eight of the 2019 Asian Cup and the final stage of qualification for the first time.
The hiring of South Korean coach Park Hang-seo in 2017 has added a harder edge to the previously genial Golden Stars. There is a greater emphasis on the team, on hard work and discipline. In short, a greater emphasis on winning. Not being at this stage before means there is little to no pressure but also little experience at this level especially against a physical side like Australia.
With coronavirus adding uncertainty and levelling playing fields, it has never been more important to pick up early points. For Australia, the final stretch of the road to Qatar starts in Qatar but anything could happen in between.