Of Asia’s participants in Brazil 2014 Korea Republic are the most fortunate. The Taeguk Warriors have been drawn in what I label the ‘Group of Fluff’, while Japan have also been rather fortunate in contrast to Australia and Iran.
Brazil 2014 has gifted Korea Republic with a dream draw including: Belgium, Algeria and play-off qualifiers Russia. Unfortunately the lucky draw has come at a time when Korea Republic is at a low ebb, with a world ranking of 54, and more importantly only just scraping through to qualify automatically for Brazil 2014. They finished second behind Iran and narrowly avoided a play-off on goal difference. Meanwhile, Russian manager Fabio Capello has put himself under pressure by labelling his team as favourites to win the group. The Italian tried to hide a contempt for his opponents by then saying he wouldn’t underestimate them. “Belgium are an excellent team consisting of young and skilled players . . . Korea are also very serious opponents . . .” Capello said.
Japan were almost as fortunate as Korea Republic, drawing Greece, Cote d’Ivoire and Columbia. Greece limped into Brazil 2014 via a play-off, after managing a huge tally of 12 goals from their 10 qualifiers against European giants such as Liechtenstein, Latvia and Lithuania (yes, I’m being sarcastic). Cote d’Ivoire were pretty comprehensive in qualification, remaining undefeated and winning their last round match against Senegal 4-2, over two legs. At least Japan weren’t drawn with Nigeria who downed Cote d’Ivoire 4-1 in July just as Mexico did in August. Columbia were second in South American qualification off the back of the stingiest defence on that continent, but on the bright side Japan didn’t receive Brazil or Argentina.
Australia are in arguably the toughest group of the tournament, placed alongside Spain, Netherlands and Chile. Even without the shocking draw Australia were going to do it tough as they’re in a transitional phase, but really . . . drawing 2010’s finalists Spain and Netherlands, it couldn’t get worse. New manager Ange Postecoglou was typically defiant, and upbeat. Postecoglou has had repeated success domestically with Brisbane Roar, winning two titles in a row, before rejuvenating Melbourne Victory. Aware of the enormity of the task, the Socceroos manager gave a steely response in his written statement on the FFA website, “. . . we will embrace the challenge head on with the spirit and bravery that are hallmarks of our country and the Australian people.” The Aussies will face Chile first up and it’s do or die for both teams in this match. Chile will no doubt look upon Australia as their three point pick-up, and possibly underestimate them. But Chile have some great form behind them this year, drawing with Brazil, drawing with Spain, and giving England a 2-nil touch-up in London. The match against Netherlands may be Australia’s best hope, with the Socceroos never defeated by a Dutch outfit. Spain will be a bridge too far, but overall the Aussies are familiar with the role of underdog, and it often brings out the best in them.
Iran find themselves up against Argentina, Nigeria, and first timers Bosnia-Herzegovina. For me Nigeria are the dark horse of the tournament, and Iran may get a stern lesson in their first match pitted against the Super Eagles. Manager Carlos Queiroz spoke of qualifying as being a hellish experienceand looked forward to Iran’s challenge. “For my players it should be an honour to play against these rivals and it is important they go out and enjoy every minute of every match, eager to make it to the second round,” the former Manchester United assistant said. Team Melli have never advanced past the group phase in three attempts, but positives in this campaign come from their ability to take points away from home, and their tight defence. They won three of four away matches, including wins against Uzbekistan and Korea Republic, and conceded a miserly two goals in eight matches.
If Japan can get something from the Cote d’Ivoire clash, and as expected beat Greece, they’ll be on the path to advance. The rest of Asia will struggle. Korea Republic may have received a dream draw but they’re not in a position to take advantage of it, and it will surprise me if they advance. Australia has the bright and shiny Tom Rogic, but even the lowest ranked of their opponents, Chile (15th) have strong form. Iran have a great defence, and are strong away from home, but matches against teams from outside Asia haven’t been so impressive (defeated by Albania and drew with Tunisia 2012). It’s left to Japan to carry the flag for the continent, and unfortunately in a tough campaign for Asian teams they will face Italy, England, or Uruguay if they advance through the group stage.