With just three matchdays remaining in the second round of qualification for the 2018 World Cup, Sport360 takes a look at five major talking points from the games just played and those still to come.
– VIDEO: FIFA's 10 best goals of 2015
– Phil Ball: Where did it all go wrong for Moyes
1. Things are looking up for UAE
What a difference a week makes. Now progression to the final round of qualification is back in the hands of Mahdi Ali and his men. After all the fuss Saudi Arabia made about going to Palestine, they got their wish of a neutral venue and could only draw. Those two dropped points make all the difference.
As expected UAE made short work of Timor Leste – less their Brazilian contingent – at home and are now just three points behind the leaders. Next comes a trip to Malaysia (handy for the Al Ahli contingent that can then make the three hour flight to Guangzhou for the second leg of the Asian Champions League final) against an opposition that is in all kinds of trouble. The Tigers have no coach and no confidence with a goal difference of minus 24. There will also be no fans. The game will be played behind closed doors as a punishment after crowd trouble in an earlier tie with Saudi Arabia. UAE have only overconfidence to be wary of at the moment; however this should be as comfortable an away trip as it is possible to get in Asia.
2. Qatar are so close
Only two teams are perfect so far in this second round. South Korea are one, Qatar the other. It almost certain that the latter will defeat Bhutan on Tuesday. If that happens then a draw between Hong Kong and China will see the Maroons secure first with two games to spare – that would be a fine achievement and increases confidence ahead of the much trickier final round.
The game in Hong Kong is going to be fascinating. Whichever team loses can almost certainly say 'zaijian' to their chances of finishing second. With political tensions between Beijing and the Special Administrative Region high off the pitch, then it promises to be quite a night. Qatar's evening, in contrast, should be comfortably boring and predictable.
3. Syria are still on course for the final round if…
They win in Singapore and that promises to be a fascinating game. Singapore have been going reasonably well in qualification, better than some expected given some of the issues that have surrounded the team in recent months and years.
Syria will have to find a way past goalkeeper Izhan Mahmud. He was outstanding in June as Singapore went to Japan and pulled off a shock 0-0 draw. He was almost as good on Thursday despite Japan's 3-0 victory, where the Samurai Blues showed their true class.
Singapore see Syria as an opportunity to add to the ten points already collected. A win would go down very well indeed and would even give Singapore a chance of finishing second. Syria are not going to go to Japan and win the final game so second spot is the best they can do to keep their hopes of being one of the best four runners-up alive. They have to win in the city state. The earlier match between the two, played in the neutral venue of Oman, ended in a narrow 1-0 win for the west Asians. Something similar would do this time.
4. The big boys are looking comfortable
Australia, Japan, Iran and South Korea all won and all will be in the final round. Australia may still be a point behind Jordan after losing there last month but the Socceroos are confident of defeating the men from Amman in the final game at home. Japan are top of their group and, in effect, just a home draw against Syria in the last group game – a team the Samurai Blue beat 3-0 just last month – will suffice. Team Melli have yet to fully find their rhythm in qualification so far but now find themselves in top spot following a 3-1 win over Turkmenistan. Carlos Queiroz's men took an early lead then conceded after the break but soon hit back to take the points. South Korea are perfect after five games and have yet to even concede a goal. Assuming the Taeguk Warriors win in Laos on Tuesday – a pretty safe assumption to make – then it is likely their progression will be confirmed.
5. Iraq have their work cut out
The Desert Foxes did not even play in this round – the group has been reduced to four teams given Indonesia's suspension – but they have serious work to do. When the draw was made, the reaction in Baghdad was one of relief with three Southeast Asian teams and then Taiwan. Iraq reckoned without the improving Thailand and the War Elephants are now sitting pretty eight points clear at the top of the group. OK, Iraq have two games in hand and have to host the Thais but it means that the 2007 Asian champions have to win all three of their remaining games to take top spot. Beating Thailand at home is not a foregone conclusion as this young team has players such as Teerasil Dangda, Chanatip Songkrasin and Charyl Chappuis are some of the best players around. Despite the eight point gap, Iraq can still finish top but it will not be easy.
A lot has already been written about David Moyes’ departure from Real Sociedad last Monday, and doubtless more conclusions will be reached and the affair further analysed, as was the case when Manchester United also dispensed with his services after ten months. Moyes lasted a bit longer in San Sebastián; 363 days and 38 games to be precise. During that time he managed 11 wins, 13 draws and 13 defeats. The data weighs lightly down on the negative side of the scales, but the overall results have not been tragic. The club’s problem, obviously, is that the team finds itself hovering just above the relegation zone with 9 points from the first 11 games of this season, many of which were picked up against allegedly inferior sides. The club rectors decided Moyes had to go before the damage set in permanently.
– VIDEO: FIFA's 10 best goals of 2015
– Phil Ball: Football is a human business
Moyes was very much president Jokin Aperribay’s personal project. His availability last November proved too much of a temptation for a president enjoying the fruits of his own good husbandry; income from some high-profile transfers, and an increased cake-slice of Spain’s television revenue. Moyes himself, taking a sabbatical after the trauma of his Old Trafford experience, seemed undecided but Aperribay persisted and got his man on an initial 18-month agreement. Moyes was sold to the Real Sociedad fans as a man who would bring various things to the club. Firstly, he would steady the ship, and bring some rigour and discipline to the set-up. Secondly, he would use his knowledge of the market to bring over any promising players from the British scene. Thirdly, he would work with the youth set-up, a crucial part of the club’s tradition and identity. If his work on all three of these aspects was good, he could stay for as long as he liked, and become the club’s second John Toshack.
Moyes succeeded in the first objective as he guided the club to safety, pulling them up to 12th place by the end of the season. In the other two objectives, he failed, although in his defence he did hand debuts to various youth-team aspirants, notably full-back Aritz Elustondo. But there was never any real connection to the other levels at the club. A coach from inside the club complained that Moyes had arrived, ‘smiled a bit, shook our hands and then proceeded to bring all his mates over from England’. Moyes brought over Billy Mckinlay as his second, and later Dave Billows as fitness coach. In an interview with ESPN earlier this season, Moyes described the whole scene as tickety-boo. The food was great, the city beautiful, his 5-star hotel just wonderful, and during the week he and Billy were free to jump in their car and drive around Spain scouting, watching opponents and ‘talking football’ (sic). Well – it was good to know that they weren’t talking about The Great British Bake-off, but Moyes revealed beautifully in the interview exactly why he was not destined to see his contract out.
When you arrive in another footballing culture, with different ways of thinking and a different language, it’s often a good idea to attempt to understand it. Moyes was no fool – he knew this – but nobody had thought through the strategies required to put this into place. Driving around in your English-speaking bubble all week, slumming it with your full English breakfast every morning and then skipping your Spanish lessons because you have ‘no time’ (sic), is not a very constructive policy. Instead of taking on the cultural and linguistic challenge, Moyes shirked it – and everyone in the city began to see it. Moyes’ Spanish teacher told me that he’d begun with reasonable enthusiasm, but that the club had eventually begun to convert him into Moyes’ interpreter, after the official translator Erik Bretos was moved sideways into scouting. Of course, it’s not easy to learn a new language when you’re 52-years-old and a victim of Britain’s stubborn monolingual tradition, but there are strategies you can adopt – for example maintaining a Spanish speaker in your immediate team. The Spanish speaker just might know something about La Liga too. You can almost hear Homer screaming ‘Doh!’
When Asier Illarramendi was re-signed in a blaze of publicity from Real Madrid earlier this season, it was clear that Moyes had no idea who he was. Not good. Several articles this week have blamed Real Sociedad for naivete over Moyes, and of expecting too much from him – but it’s not as if they were paying him ten quid a week. When your salary is in the millions, you also have an obligation to do your homework. Moyes also confused the players, and talked them down publicly, as if the club’s aspirations for a place in Europe were just pie-in-the-sky. He was wrong – the squad is a good one – but in Spain, even if you think this, you never say it. It’s the unwritten law. He did bring stability and he did improve the defence, but you’d expect that from an ex centre-back. As far as attacking ideas went, he was either unable to communicate them, or he just didn’t have any. As they say – you decide. Manchester United did, and went for the pay off.
(Moyes) failure has only served to increase the general impression that British coaches are not only behind the times, they are also disabled by a national system and culture that encourages them to think that everybody is actually out of step but them
More seriously, he took offence at strange things – suddenly dropping players without offering any explanation. Midfielder David Zurutuza, loved by the crowd, was dropped after a pre-season friendly at Zaragoza for addressing Moyes as ‘David’ – although Moyes had failed to make this clear to the players before. By the time Moyes realised that Zurutuza was vital to the team’s make-up, the season was already well under way and the midfield had become a strange and inconsistent mess, propped up only by the unilateral efforts of the excellent Illarramendi.
Moyes’ friends in the British press have implied that Sociedad did not allow him to make the signings he wanted – but this is complete nonsense. Moyes went after two players – Danny Ings (then still at Burnley) and Arsenal’s Joel Campbell. The club worked tirelessly to sign them, but Ings was always more interested in the salary he would get from sitting on the bench at Liverpool, and Campbell knew that Wenger was beginning to rate him again. Sociedad were perhaps a little innocent on this score – imagining that half of Britain would leave its shores in a mad rush to work with Moyes, but they were starry-eyed about the Scot. He was a big name, and they fell for it. But that doesn’t excuse Moyes’ complete lack of understanding of how to adapt. The club should also have helped him, it’s true. But they indulged him, and they’ve paid the price. They won’t make the same mistake again.
Cup of tea, David (sorry, Gaffer)?
When Moyes arrived last November, I approached Aperribay through his son (who played football with mine) and told him that if Moyes was feeling a bit lonely, and wanted to talk La Liga, Basque culture and Real Sociedad in his own language – as well as take away a copy of my book ‘Morbo’ for homework, he was welcome to do so. We’d make him dinner, and none of the conversation would go any further than my front door. I wasn’t being cocky. I knew what it was like to be in a strange culture, not really understanding your surrounds. I’d been in San Sebastian 24 years, knew the club and its history (my son had played for the youth side), knew some of the players, and knew what the Basques thought about football. But I also remembered how difficult life was in the beginning. And I didn’t intend to give him a lecture, I just thought he might be interested in having a cuppa and a chat. Aperribay said yes, and that I was to wait for a call from the press officer. It never came.
Moyes never moved out of his hotel, never learned how to pronounce ‘Bilbao’ (Sociedad’s great rival), and left the team lacking in confidence and in some disarray. To his credit, he hasn’t blamed the club (yet) and he may well – in a quieter moment – realise that he missed a real opportunity to put the record straight on his talents as a coach. Sadly, his failure has only served to increase the general impression that British coaches are not only behind the times, but they are also disabled by a national system and culture that encourages them to think that everybody is actually out of step but them. In the end, the Basques felt patronised by Moyes. It shouldn’t have ended up that way. If he’d just come over for that cup of tea……
Real Madrid star James Rodriguez returned to snatch a draw for Colombia against Chile on Thursday as Argentina and Brazil's long-awaited World Cup qualifying clash was postponed by torrential rain.
Rodriguez, who missed Colombia's opening two 2018 World Cup qualifiers last month through injury, pounced in the 68th minute to help give his team a precious point in a 1-1 draw with the Copa America champions in Santiago.
– 2006 World Cup: Beckenbauer silence adds to scandal
Chile, who dominated possession for long periods but struggled to break down a disciplined Colombian defence, had taken the lead on the stroke of half-time through a headed Arturo Vidal effort.
In other games Thursday, surprise package Ecuador defeated Uruguay 2-1 to maintain their 100 percent start to the qualifying campaign after three matches.
Ecuador, shock winners over Argentina in Buenos Aires last month, secured all three points through Fidel Martinez's second-half winner.
Uruguay, missing suspended superstar Luis Suarez — still serving a ban for his infamous bite at the 2014 World Cup – struggled to contain a vibrant Ecuador side, comfortable in the challenging thin Andean air of Quito, some 9,000-feet above sea level.
Ecuador took the lead on 23 minutes through Felipe Caicedo, the Espanyol striker coolly tucking away a low cross from JuanParedes on the right flank.
But Uruguay levelled four minutes after half-time through returning striker Edinson Cavani, the Paris Saint-Germain forward heading home from Nicolas Lodeiro's perfectly flighted free-kick.
But Ecuador regained the lead only 10 minutes later however through an opportunistic strike from Martinez.
Swansea City forward Jefferson Montero was the catalyst, cutting in purposefully from the left flank and unleashing a fierce low shot towards Fernando Muslera.
Muslera could only parry the shot into the path of Martinez, who jabbed home the rebound to trigger wild celebrations in Quito's Atahualpa Stadium.
Ecuador will now aim to secure a fourth consecutive victory when they travel to Venezuela next Tuesday.
Venezuela, who lost their opening two matches last month, suffered a third defeat earlier Thursday when they slumped to a 4-2 defeat to Bolivia in La Paz.