Asia thins out as World Cup qualifying heats up
By CHRIS ALTRUDA
(AP) -- NORTHBROOK, Ill. (STATS) - The road to Rio marks its 2012 starting point in Asia, which is now down to 10 teams competing in final round-robin qualifying to claim up to five spots for Brazil.
One notable omission from the group: 2010 World Cup entrant North Korea, which placed third in Group C behind surprising Uzbekistan and perennial power Japan. While both teams had already clinched spots in the final round prior to the match, Uzbekistan served notice its semifinal appearance in last year's Asian Cup was no fluke by winning 1-0 at Japan to claim the top spot.
While the Chollima will be spectators of the final round, a surprise entrant among the remaining 10 is Lebanon. The Al Aarz stamped their ticket when Group B winner South Korea defeated Kuwait 2-0 to negate Lebanon's 4-2 road defeat at the UAE. This will be Lebanon's first appearance in the final round of regional qualifying, and it will face an uphill climb as the level of talent among its opponents rises.
While Japan may be the favorite in the region after defeating Australia in the Asian Cup final, the Socceroos had little trouble winning Group D by posting five victories in six matches. They are joined by Oman, which advanced with a win over Thailand and Australia's victory over Saudi Arabia in the final matchday.
Iraq, Jordan, Iran and 2022 World Cup host Qatar round out the final-round participants, with the Al Ennabi scraping through in wild fashion. Qatar rallied for a 2-all draw at Iran on a goal by Kasola Mohammed in the 86th minute, but the real drama took place simultaneously in Bahrain. The Al Theeb Al Ahmar needed to overturn a staggering goal differential of nine while playing Indonesia to have any chance of advancing to the final round.
Bahrain got that and added a 10th in a match greatly aided by Indonesia goalkeeper Samsidar being sent off two minutes into the contest on a direct red card. Al Theeb Al Ahmar unleashed a barrage of six goals in the second half in a furious charge, only to be thwarted by Mohammed's late goal to give Qatar the tie, thus eliminating them.
FIFA announced Thursday it would conduct a probe into the Bahrain-Indonesia match, "given the unusual outcome against results expectation and head-to-head history, and in the interests of maintaining unequivocal confidence in our game."
The 10 remaining teams will be placed in two groups of five, and the top two from each group will clinch spots in Brazil. The third-place teams will meet, with the winner of a two-legged tie advancing to play the fifth-place finisher from South America.
While this year's African Cup of Nations did not determine a spot in the 2013 Confederations Cup since another continental tournament is still to be played, Zambia is fully deserving of kudos after stunning the Ivory Coast on penalty kicks in the final.
The match was rife with poignancy for the Copper Bullets, who had 18 members of their squad killed in a plane crash in Liberville, Gabon, the site of the championship match. Zambia showed resolve in its defense, but also had to survive a nervy moment in regulation when star Didier Drogba failed to convert from the 12-yard spot, and again late in the second half when Max Gradel narrowly missed scoring.
Following extra time, the teams exchanged seven straight conversions from the spot before Zambia goalkeeper Kennedy Mweene saved an attempt by Kolo Toure, only to see the match extended by a miss from Rainford Kalaba. The Copper Bullets then claimed victory after a miss by Gervinho, followed by Stophira Sunzu etching his name into Zambian lore with his conversion.
The just-completed international matchday produced some interesting scorelines, most notably the United States getting its first win over Italy in 11 tries with a 1-0 victory over Genoa. While the Yanks had exactly two quality chances - one converted by Clint Dempsey, who also had a blistering free kick punched away by Italian 'keeper Gianluigi Buffon - there were moments when the up-tempo style Jurgen Klinsmann is trying to instill clicks on the pitch.
That gives Klinsmann two victories on European soil in four matches since taking the job last year. The previous two U.S. victories in Europe were a 3-0 win at Poland in 2008 and a 1-0 win at Switzerland in 2007 over a seven-match span.
While Italy likely will recover ahead of the European Championship this summer, England appears rudderless. The surprising resignation of Fabio Capello after he was overruled by the FA regarding John Terry's captaincy has produced a crisis - both in confidence for the Three Lions and any eventual successor ahead of World Cup qualifying.
The dreaded phrase of "poisoned chalice" with the managerial position has been thrown around freely in the birthplace of soccer, and Wednesday's 3-2 loss to the Netherlands at Wembley Stadium was a deceiving scoreline as the Dutch turned ruthless at the flick of a switch in shredding England's defense.
Stuart Pearce is currently the caretaker manager while expected successor Harry Redknapp gamely tries to keep Premier League side Tottenham Hotspur in the running for a Champions League spot. With star forward Wayne Rooney suspended for the first two matches of group play in the Euros, there is a very real chance England will crash out in group play. If that happens, it may serve the FA wise to give Redknapp carte blanche to overhaul the Three Lions as he sees fit.
As one country tries to find a manager, another seems intent on finding an excuse to jettison one. Many would think the French Football Federation would bend over backwards to reward Laurent Blanc for not only stabilizing Les Bleus after their disastrous 2010 flameout in South Africa but making steady progress as they prepare for the Euros.
Even with an 18-match unbeaten streak following a 2-1 victory Wednesday at Germany, the FFF has decided on a wait-and-see approach based on the summer's results to see if Blanc will be around for World Cup qualifying.
Part of this may be due to Blanc refusing to put forth grandiose expectations for the summer, saying the aim is to win a single match as part of a long-term vision that includes the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Euros, which France will host. Part of it may also be due to a reportedly prickly relationship with FFF president Noel La Graet.
However, the bottom line is that Blanc - rightfully lionized in France for helping win the 1998 World Cup as a player - has done an impressive job in creating a new winning culture with Les Bleus.
Updated March 2, 2012