Asian WCQs: Japan slips, fails to clinch; Australia held to draw at home

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Even after looking at all this information, I still don’t think I understand that context of today’s upset in Amman. Jordan beat Japan 2-1 in Asian World Cup Qualifying, and because Japan is so far ahead in their five-team group (up six points with two rounds to play), part of my mind’s shutting off. Perhaps it’s a defense mechanism, tuning out the utter shock that would otherwise be pulsing through my head.

Japan should have won this one and clinched their spot for Brazil 2014. Instead, they fell to a team they beat 6-0 last June in Saitama.

The Samurai Blue are clearly the best team in Asia right now, while Jordan was expected to have trouble in a group that also includes Australia, Iraq, and Oman (top two clinch Brazil, the next goes into a playoff … to play in a playoff for a spot in the World Cup). With a squad comprised of almost exclusively domestic-based players, Jordan had a -7 goal difference through five matches, though they had recently defeated a struggling Australia at home. Japan, with a squad split between their domestic league and Germany (with a few other players sprinkled throughout Europe), were 4-0-1 in the final round, had scored 13 times and only conceded twice.

They’d dominated. The reigning AFC champions should have become the second team to clinch a spot in Brazil.

Because they didn’t, the game turned into an admonition: Getting qualifying results on the road is hard. Maybe a lot less so in Europe, and there are always countries whose familiarities form habits, but when Japan is playing 5,600 miles away from Tokyo, the trip’s always going to seem a little foreign. Even when the Samurai Blue have been handing around the Middle East for a week (playing Canada in Doha on Thursday).

Only in the perverse world of FIFA confederations could the Pacific Rim and the Fertile Crescent be part of the same region, so when one team has to travel from one end of that blob to the other, you get results like a 6-0 in Saitama. And a 2-1 in Amman.

As with most upsets, the game had its fair share of luck, timing, and just deserts. The game looked destined to go into halftime scoreless before an injury time corner kick was converted by Khalil Bani Ateyah. Despite controlling the game, the visitors were sentinto the dressing rooms down a goal.

That dominance turned to urgency in the second half, but a great individual effort from Ahmad Ibrahim doubled Jordan’s lead on the hour. Shinji Kagawa (pictured) pulled one back, and veteran Yasuhito Endo looked set to draw Japan even with a late penalty kick, but when Amer Sabbah saved the try, Jordan had their second win of the group.

They may not have been picked to come out of Group B, but after six games, the Jordanians are in second place. Australia, sitting third, still have a game in hand, and Jordan will have to go to Melbourne for their next qualifier, but with time running out on Asia’s last round, Jordan looks a good bet to at least claim a playoff spot.

Australia plays in Japan on June 4, a game the Samurai Blue now care about, while Jordan closes qualifying on June 18 hosting Oman. The same day, the Socceroos host Iraq.

If the Socceroos lose in Japan, Jordan control their own fate. Get a result in Melbroune then win at home and the nation will qualify for their first ever World Cup.

Even if the Socceroos get something in Saitama, Jordan’s home game against Oman gives them an inside track on the playoff spot.

source: Getty ImagesAnother stumble for Australia

When Australia breezed through AFC qualifying four years ago, there was a sense that they’d caught their new confederation by surprised Their set piece prowess and reliance on Joshua Kennedy and Tim Cahill on the end of crosses made their first trip thorugh Asian qualifying an easy one. Not overly talented and or doing anything complicated, Australia were just winning individual battles and taking victories. The simplicity of it seemed to leave opponents asking “is that it” as the Socceroos moved on to South Africa.

Of course, that’s just a hypothesis, but it’s one that’s gathered supporting evidence this cycle, where the Australians have struggled to keep up with Asia’s other powers. Japan, who Australia lost to in the final of the last Asian Cup, has left them in Group B’s dust, while the Socceroos are stuck on one win. With Jordan’s surprise success, Australia’s a doubt for Brazil. At a minimum, their qualifying campaign’s become unexpectedly complicated.

With results like today’s 2-2 at home against Oman, the Australians have brought this on themselves. They can take solace in having found back from a two-goal deficit, scores by Tim Cahill (pictured) and Brett Holman pulling back the lead built by Abdulaziz Al-Muqbali and a Mile Jedinak own goal, but falling two down to Oman at home is indictment enough. In both form and standing, the Socceroos are in trouble.

“It was definitely not what we expected. We had different hopes going into that games but unfortunately the first half was not according to plan and we almost paid dearly for that,” he head coach Holger Osieck said after the match.

“We always passed backwards, we delayed our game, there was no penetration, there was no quick ball up into the centre. So we basically played to their cards. That’s the reason we didn’t do well in the first half.”

Next up is Japan, a team against whom they needed a 70th minute penalty conversion to draw last June. Thankfully, the Socceroos don’t need a result this time. With June home matches against Jordan and Iraq, Australia can hold serve at home and qualify for Brazil.

Uzbeks still on top of Group A

With their 1-0 home win over Lebanon, Uzbekistan — who have never qualified for a World Cup — still lead their group. South Korea’s 2-1 win over Qatar keep the Koreans one back with a game in hand, but the important number for the Uzbeks is four. That’s how many points they have on third place Iran (who also have a game in hand). Finish ahead of them and fourth place Qatar, and Uzbekistan’s going to Brazil.

Their result came from a bit of luck, but having already suffered their fair share of qualifying mishaps, the Uzbeks deserves a little evening of the scales. In the 66th minute, a shot from Server Djeparov took a heavy deflection before going in for the game’s only goal.

While fortune intervened to guide the ball past Abbas Hassan, the Uzbeks were the better side throughout, earning three points and their third consecutive 1-0 victory. Their June 11 trip to South Korea likely ends that run, but with a June 18 match at home against Qatar, Uzbekistan will likely be able to earn their spot in Brazil 2014.

“This game belongs to the players” Wenger downplays Guardiola success

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Arsene Wenger has stressed that Pep Guardiola has not changed the game of soccer over the last decade or so, maintaining that the players are the ones who make a team truly great.

Asked if Guardiola has “raised the bar” of managing in his time at the top, Wenger said, “No, because you look at Barcelona and they are still the best team in Europe. You have to accept that the modern game has changed with the recruitment of the best players in a short number of clubs.”

[ MORE: EFL Cup final preview ]

“We, as managers, can maybe impart our philosophy but this game belongs to the players because the importance of the players has become bigger than ever before.”

In fact, Wenger showed a twinge of jealousy at all the attention Guardiola is getting with the team blowing out the rest of the Premier League this season, referencing trophies in the recent past Arsenal has hoisted. “We are maybe underdogs but we have to believe in our quality. The history, the fact we have done it before, shows why not do it again?”

“At the end of the day, you have to be cool,” Wenger said, “because Manchester City is dominating the league in the head of everybody and so maybe we are more underdogs than in the FA Cup semi-final [last season when Arsenal beat Man City].”

Deportivo wastes penalty kick, remains winless under Seedorf

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MADRID (AP) — Clarence Seedorf remained winless as Deportivo La Coruna coach after a 0-0 draw with Espanyol in the Spanish league on Friday.

Deportivo squandered chances including a second-half penalty kick taken by Lucas Perez. Its winless streak reached 10 games in all competitions.

It was the third game in a row without a victory since Seedorf took over to try to avoid relegation. Deportivo was 18th in the 20-team standings, in the relegation zone.

In addition to the missed penalty, Deportivo twice hit the posts in front of a supportive crowd at Riazor Stadium. The players left the field applauded by the local fans despite the setback.

Perez’s penalty attempt was saved by Espanyol goalkeeper Diego Lopez in the 65th minute. Lopez, who earlier this season stopped a penalty taken by Lionel Messi, dived to his right to stop Perez’s low shot.

The match marked the Deportivo debut of veteran Ghanaian midfielder Sulley Muntari. He played alongside Seedorf at AC Milan, and was signed this week after a trial period.

Espanyol, 15th in the standings, hasn’t won in seven matches, since it ended Barcelona’s 29-match unbeaten streak in the first leg of the Copa del Rey quarterfinals. Espanyol’s last league win was in January, seven rounds ago.

Barcelona defends its seven-point lead in the standings when it hosts Girona on Saturday. Second-place Atletico Madrid visits Sevilla on Sunday.

Conte says he believes in his selection regarding Willian

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Antonio Conte has lashed out at anyone questioning why Brazilian winger Willian hasn’t played regularly until recently, saying

“Do you think that I am stupid when I put Willy on the bench?” Conte fired back at reporters when he was asked about Willian’s earlier lack of playing time at his pre-match press conference ahead of Chelsea’s match on Sunday against Manchester United.

[ MORE: Heynckes squashes Lewandowski to Premier League rumors ]

“I have to try and make the best decision for the team, no? Maybe last season we won the title, or did I forget something?”

The 29-year-old has made 29 Premier League appearances, but only 13 starts. He started in the midweek Champions League match against Barcelona and not only scored Chelsea’s only goal but also proved their most incisive player, prompting questions about his selection.

“Now he is playing because he deserves to play, not because there is some regret from the past,” Conte said. “For what? If a player deserves to play, and shows me during the training session that he is on top of his form, and wants to work defensively, he plays. If not, [he will] stay on the bench, stay in the stands.”

Instead of saying he wishes Willian had played more earlier in the season, he praised himself for giving the Brazilian the start at the appropriate time.

“He is playing now and I am very happy with my choice. Willian deserved to start in the previous game, and played well. I did a fantastic choice, and I want to take credit for that.”

EFL Cup Final preview: Arsenal, Manchester City fight for different types of glory

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  • These two clubs have never met in a major Cup final
  • With a win, Arsene Wenger would become the 8th PL manager to win all 3 major English trophies
  • Sergio Agüero has scored in all of his last 4 appearances against Arsenal

For Manchester City, it’s the first step of a potentially record-setting season. For Arsenal, it’s the Gunners’ best chance at securing a trophy.

The two teams are fighting for very different levels of glory as the two meet at Wembley Stadium on Sunday at 11:30 a.m. ET. Manchester City, despite losing to Wigan in the FA Cup just a week ago, would still be on track for a Double this season with a win against the Gunners. Meanwhile, Arsenal is outside the Premier League top four, and – as they have done each of the past two seasons in the FA Cup – could salvage an otherwise disappointing league season with a major Cup trophy.

Both teams will be struggling with selection in certain areas. Manchester City is likely missing Raheem Sterling, who could sit out due to an unspecified muscle injury according to Pep Guardiola in his pre-match press conference, while Fabian Delph is suspended after his sending off against Wigan in the FA Cup. That means either Danilo or 21-year-old Oleksandr Zinchencko would start at wing-back. Zinchenko is the likely candidate there, having appeared in four of City’s five EFL Cup games this season so far and playing almost every minute of those four matches. Gabriel Jesus, who missed more than two months with a knee injury, could be ready to make his early return. Claudio Bravo will continue to play in goal for the domestic Cup competitions.

Arsenal, meanwhile, is without new signing Henrikh Mkhitaryan who is cup-tied to his previous club Manchester United, while Alexandre Lacazette is not yet recovered from his knee injury suffered in the North London derby, and Mesut Ozil could miss out with an illness. The Gunners are likely, however, to get Aaron Ramsey back in midfield after recovering from a groin injury, while Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang can return to the lineup after his own cup tied absence in the Europa League midweek.

What they’re saying

Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola on playing Arsenal twice in a week: “We will be happy if we win, sad if we don’t but after the game we have another match against Arsenal. We are going to try and maintain our level, but finals are different, it is not what you have done in the past.”

Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger on playing Manchester City: “Manchester City have so many players that you think you have to stop that it is better to focus on the team plan than rather than on any individual. It’s true that I always used to use this competition with a youth team. For us it’s an opportunity. We’ll play with all the regular players.” 

Prediction

Arsenal has often come up big in hotly contested Cup matches, despite poor form in the surrounding competitions, so it would not be surprising to once again see Arsene Wenger hoist a trophy on Sunday to temporarily distract the fanbase and media from larger struggles. However, picking against this Manchester City team would be selection suicide, even after their disappointment against Wigan and considering the absence of under the radar star Raheem Sterling. Manchester City wins 3-1 with a pair of late goals to sink the Gunners, with a newly healthy Gabriel Jesus providing an influential injection off the bench in the final 20 minutes. Pep Guardiola raises another trophy at the site where he won the 2011 Champions League.