Rijkaard has tough Thai test to retain Cup hopes
Thailand can put a huge dent in the World Cup ambitions of Saudi Arabia and coach Frank Rijkaard when they meet in the group stage of Asian qualifying Tuesday.
The top-two teams from each of the five, four-team groups progress to the final round qualifying, and after earning just one point from its opening two Group D matches, Saudi Arabia can't afford to lose in Bangkok to an improving Thailand team.
Rijkaard, former coach of Barcelona and the Netherlands, was appointed by Saudi Arabia in July and charged with leading the Asian powerhouse to a fifth World Cup.
An opening goalless draw in Oman was followed by a 3-1 home defeat at the hands of Australia last month. Thailand lies second in the group after a narrow loss at Australia and a 3-0 home win over Oman.
''It won't be easy, but we can win this match,'' Thailand coach Winfried Schaefer told Associated Press. ''We can go to the next round. I told my players this. Our dream is the World Cup, it is not easy but that is our target.
''I hope we can play at the same level as we played against Oman and Australia. Then we have a chance.''
Since taking over in July, Schaefer, who led Cameroon to the 2002 African Nations title, has been praised for the team's improvements
''I told them that if they play well for the national team, everyone in the world will be able to see them,'' the German said. ''The players are confident and we have worked hard on fitness and tactics. W are not afraid.''
Schaefer, who spent five years coaching in the UAE, knows that the pressure is already on his opposite number Rijkaard.
''He is a big-name in playing and coaching, but the mentality in Arabian countries is different,'' he said. ''The team is under pressure after losing to Australia in what was a very good performance from Australia.''
The Socceroos control the group and, along with Jordan, is the only team to have maximum points from the opening two games. A win against Oman in Sydney would give coach Holger Osieck, whose team thrashed Malaysia 5-0 in a Friday friendly, one foot in the final round.
A third straight loss would also virtually end the chances of Oman and its French coach Paul Le Guen, another big-name boss under pressure.
''We should all know that Australians are a big power,'' said Le Guen, a former Lyon, Paris St Germain and Cameroon coach. ''See how they dominated against the Malaysians. I have asked the players to have a never-say-die-spirit and fight till the end in this crucial match.''
Australia, without English Premier League stars Tim Cahill and Mark Schwarzer, is expecting a tougher test against Oman than Malaysia.
''They'll obviously come and try to park the bus a little bit, but they'll be quick on the counter and have some athletic players on the wings and up front. We'll have to be focused and ready,'' captain Lucas Neill said. ''It's important we do that because, not only is it a good habit, but we need the win and it will give us one foot into the next round.''
Former Real Madrid coach Carlos Queiroz is enjoying better results with Iran, with four points from the opening two matches to lead Group E from Bahrain on goal difference.
''The two rivals meet in Tehran. Bahrain is a dangerous team with good players,'' Queiroz said. ''However, we know the way the Bahrainis play and want to beat them.''
Indonesia has been in disarray and needs to defeat third-placed Qatar at home in Jakarta.
The UAE is another team yet to earn a point and faces a tough trip to Group B leaders South Korea. After the second defeat at Lebanon, coach Srecko Katanec was fired and replaced by Abdulla Masfar. The team is also still coming to terms with the death last month of young winger Theyab Awana in a car accident.
In the other Group B game, third-placed Lebanon host second-placed Kuwait.
Arsenal striker Park Chu-young may be struggling for playing time in the Premier League, but has scored six goals in his last three games for Korea, two coming in Friday's 2-2 draw with Poland in Seoul.
''I am training hard and just trying to take the opportunities when they come my way,'' Park said. ''We need to stay focused against UAE and make sure that we get the right result.''
Asian champion Japan will expect to take three points in Group C when bottom-placed Tajikistan arrives in Osaka. Most eyes will be on the clash between the two teams expected to tussle for second place as North Korea, with three points, hosts Uzbekistan with four.
There is also a crunch match in Group A. Jordan has six points and with successive games against bottom team Singapore could build an unassailable lead at the top. If so, the match between China and Iraq, both teams have three points, in Shenzhen will be crucial.
Iraq's hopes of reaching the next stage have been hit by FIFA's recent ruling that all home games must be played on neutral territory due to security concerns.