China-Saudi kicks off Asian Cup qualifiers
KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP)
As former Real Madrid coaches, both Juan Roman Lopez Caro and Jose Antonio Camacho are used to high pressure encounters and they will draw on that know-how when their respective teams Saudi Arabia and China meet on Wednesday in the opening round of qualification for the 2015 Asian Cup.
With Asia's top-ranked trio of Japan, South Korea and Australia already sure of a place in the continental tournament, to be hosted down under, two of the continent's struggling giants will be trying to join them.
''It's a huge coincidence that both managers for a Saudi Arabia-China match are Spanish, but that's the way it goes,'' said Lopez Caro, who succeeded Frank Rijkaard as Saudi Arabia coach in January. ''It proves that world football has no boundaries. It is just important that Saudi Arabia get the campaign off to a good start at home.''
Saudi Arabia qualified for four World Cups from 1994 to 2006 but has since failed in qualification twice. With the country also dumped out of the 2011 Asian Cup and 2013 Gulf Cup at the first round, the team is in urgent need of improved fortunes.
For China, these qualifiers are a chance to create some positive headlines. The departures of Didier Drogba and Nicolas Anelka from Shanghai Shenhua have damaged the image of Chinese football already this year. A 1-0 friendly defeat against a below-strength Oman in Muscat on January 30 made matters worse. A good result in Saudi Arabia would be a much-needed boost for fans at home and Camacho even took the team to Spain in January to prepare.
''We have progressed, but people have to realize we are starting from scratch and we have to take it step by step,'' Camacho told Chinese media from the training camp. ''It is a different mentality to Spain or Europe, but they are changing and it is obvious that China is an engine that doesn't stop and you can see every step they make.''
Group C also provides a chance for China to gain some revenge on Iraq. Two defeats to the west Asian team in 2011 put paid to Camacho's hopes of a place in the final round of qualification for the 2014 World Cup. Iraq is expected to take all three points off expected Group C whipping boys Indonesia.
China and Saudi Arabia are already out of the running for Brazil 2014 but some other teams begin Asia Cup qualifiers while still chasing World Cup dreams. In Group A, Jordan and Oman are reunited. Oman hosts Syria while Jordan takes on Singapore, in the first of a number of match-ups between teams from southeast and west Asia.
Lebanon defeated Iran in qualification for 2014 in September for the first time ever and the two teams, both still hopeful of a place in Brazil, meet once more in Tehran in Group B while Thailand hosts Kuwait in Bangkok.
''We have been improving lately,'' said Iran coach Carlos Queiroz, another former Real Madrid coach who complained of time-wasting by Lebanon in the recent Beirut meeting. ''This is a chance for us to continue in our progress and we will be fully concentrating on the Lebanon game.''
Uzbekistan is on top of its World Cup qualification group and can continue its recent good form with a straightforward-looking home game against Hong Kong in Tashkent while elsewhere in Group E, 2013 Gulf Cup winner UAE travels to Vietnam in high spirits.
Qatar is another team in with a shout of World Cup participation and hosts Malaysia in Doha in Group D. Bahrain faces Yemen in the remaining match.
Twenty teams have been split into five groups of four with the top two automatically qualifying for the event in Australia. As well as the host nation, Japan and South Korea have already booked their spots due to their performances at the 2011 tournament. North Korea qualifies due to winning the 2012 AFC Challenge Cup, and so will the winner of the 2014 edition of that tournament. There will also be a place for the third-placed team with the best record in qualification.