Asian World Cup Qualifying: Japan has almost clinched a spot in Brazil

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If you need some king of clear, unambiguous sign that Asian soccer continues to improve, consider the World Cup qualifying campaigns of South Korea, Australia, and North Korea — three qualifiers for 2010’s World Cup:

  • South Korea’s doing well enough in the tournament’s fourth and final round (2-1-1 through four matches), though it’s a slow start for a team that went 4-0-4 during 2010’s final qualifying round.
  • Australia, while second in Group B, has only won one of their four final round matches, scoring only four goals in as many games.
  • Meanwhile, North Korea didn’t even make the final, 10-team round.

Japan, on the other hand (the region’s other qualifier for South Africa), appears to be getting stronger. After today’s 2-1 win in Oman, the Japanese have 13 points from a possible 15. Holding an eight-point lead with three games left in their tournament, Japan’s almost assured a fifth trip to the World Cup.

The win was more meaningful than it looked. Oman may never be a household name, but in World Cup qualifying, they’ve been tough. Their record is now 2-2-1, their only losses coming at the sword of the Blue Samurai (despite playing in a group with Australia and Iraq).

Coming into today’s game, Paul Le Guen’s side had five points in their last three games. Though most of his players play domestically, they have two noted talents making their money beyond the Omani league: Wigan Athletic goalkeeper Ali Al-Habsi and Al-Ahli (Saudi Arabia) striker Amad Al-Hosni. Particularly at home — 4860 miles from Tokyo — they can be formidable.

Australia learned that lesson earlier in qualifying. In June, the Socceroos showed up in Muscat expected to win only to be shutout by Al-Habsi. The Aussies won a point, Mark Schwarzer keeping his own clean sheet, but with Oman coming off a lopsided 3-0 loss in Japan, the result provided a huge confidence boost.

On Wednesday, Oman was just as resilient. The match looked destined to end in a 1-1 draw, Oman having pulled back an early Japan lead while Al-Habsi had kept the Japanese at arms’ length. Then, just before full time, Shinji Okazaki converted on a set piece to give the confederation champions their win.

The difference between Japan and Australia’s results in Muscat exemplifies Japan’s climb. While the Japanese have improved since we saw them in South Africa, Australia has regressed. The rest of the qualifying group (Iraq, Oman, Jordan) started in too big a whole to compete with the Samurai Blue.

Whether Japan’s advantage applies to the rest of Asia — specifically, South Korea — remains to be seen. With the Koreans in Group A and the next Asian Cup not scheduled until 2015, it may be a while before we see the Japanese meat the region’s other power.

Other results – AFC qualifying

Iraq 1-0 Jordan – Iraq got their first win of the tournament, another “home” game staged in Doha. Against Group B’s most generous defense, Iraq needed 85 minutes before 19-year-old Hammadi Ahmad scored from just outside the penalty area, giving Zico’s team their first win of the tournament.

Qatar 1-0 Lebanon – Against a Lebanon side making their first appearance at this stage of the tournament, Qatar got what amounted to a must-win. Naturalized Uruguayan Sebastián Soria scored in the 75th minute to pull Qatar out of last place, vaulting them within one point of group-leading … Uzbekistan?

Iran 0-1 Uzbekistan – A huge win for Uzbekis, and not because it pushed them into first place. With South Korea holding a match in hand, that status will likely change, but after a devastating home loss to Iran that opened final round qualifying, Uzbekistan got revenge. A late goal from veteran Ulugbek Bakayev was only the second goal Carlos Quieroz’s side has given up in five games.

Standings

Group A Pld W D L GF GA GD Pts
Uzbekistan 5 2 2 1 5 4 +1 8
South Korea 4 2 1 1 9 4 +5 7
Iran 5 2 1 2 2 2 0 7
Qatar 5 2 1 2 3 5 −2 7
Lebanon 5 1 1 3 2 6 −4 4
Group Bt Pld W D L GF GA GD Pts
Japan 5 4 1 0 13 2 +11 13
Australia 4 1 2 1 4 4 0 5
Iraq 5 1 2 2 4 5 −1 5
Oman 5 1 2 2 4 7 −3 5
Jordan 5 1 1 3 4 11 −7 4

Salah returns to Egypt starting lineup

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A familiar name returned to the starting lineup for Egypt on Tuesday afternoon.

Egypt named star Mohamed Salah in its starting XI, after resting Salah in Egypt’s 1-0 defeat to Uguruay on June 15. Salah has been recovering from an injured shoulder that he suffered during the UEFA Champions League final in late May.

Salah makes his World Cup debut now against the host nation, Russia, at 2:00 p.m.

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Senegal hold off late charge, defeat Poland on controversial goal

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Two matches, two upsets.

For the second time on Tuesday, an underdog took down a favorite as Senegal defeated Poland, 2-1, with the game-winning goal decided in controversial fashion.

In the 60th minute, M’baye Niang was waved onto the field by the referee while the ball was still in play in the middle of the field, and Niang raced on to the end of a Gregorz Krychowiak backpass that stunned the Poland defense. Niang arrived at the pass a second quicker than goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny, allowing the Senegal winger to score into an empty net.

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The VAR checked the goal but it was allowed, as it was a subjective decision of the referee to allow Niang back on the field following an injury, and not a clear and obvious error.

Senegal took the lead in the first half on the counter attack. With Poland slow in transition, Sadio Mane found Idrissa Gueye in space at the top of the box. After two touches, Gueye fired a strike to the far post in the 37th minute that took a wicked deflection off Poland defender Thiago Cionek and left Szczesny helpless.

Poland struggled all game against the pace and physicality of Senegal and the Lions of Teranga were very smart in controlling possession and switching the field, forcing the Poland squad to tire quickly.

Krychowiak did breathe some life into the game with a header goal off a free kick in the 86th minute, but despite some poor clock management from Senegal, its defense was able to hold off Poland’s last-ditch chance to tie the game, going level with Japan on three points at the top of Group H.

Report: Blatter to attend Portugal vs. Morocco as guest of Putin

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Former FIFA president Sepp Blatter is still in the middle of an eight-year ban from the organization he once ran.

But that doesn’t mean he’s going to miss out on some of the World Cup action, live in Russia.

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BBC journalist Richard Conway reported early Tuesday that Blatter is set to watch Portugal vs. Morocco in Moscow as a guest of Russian president Vladimir Putin. The 82-year-old would normally not be able to sit in the presidential box due to his FIFA ban, though he likely could attend matches with a regular ticket like the vast majority of soccer fans.

Just four years ago, Blatter was president during the 2014 World Cup, one that was marred by corruption scandals in addition to the corruption scandals surrounding the World Cup bidding process for the 2018 and 2022 tournaments.

His reign of power at FIFA finally came to an end on June 2, 2015, when he resigned following an embarrassing month for FIFA in which many of its members were arrested in a joint-raid between the Swiss authorities and the FBI.

Blatter was eventually handed an eight-year ban from FIFA’s ethics committee for an “unauthorized payment” of $2 million from Blatter to Michel Platini, the former France star and FIFA vice president who was also handed an eight-year suspension.

Transfer Rumor Roundup: Fekir negotiations back on; Chelsea waiting on transfer targets; and more

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Could Liverpool get its star attacking midfield target after all?

That’s what seems to be the case, as the agent for Lyon and France midfielder Nabil Fekir told French TV channel LCI Monday evening that negotiations aren’t over between Liverpool and Lyon.

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“He didn’t sign because um… it is not over! This is not the end of the story,” Fekir’s agent, Jean-Pierre Bernes reportedly said.

It was just two weeks ago when Lyon president Jean-Michael Aulas stated that Fekir, Lyon’s captain, would remain with the club for the upcoming season, after negotiations with Liverpool fell through. According to the Liverpool Echo, the Reds wanted a second opinion on a previous knee injury, and had balked at the $70 million price tag.

But now it appears Liverpool and Aulas could still be in conversations to try and find a mutually accepted fee.

At the same time, stirring up transfer drama is in Bernes interest, as it could drive other teams into the race to sign Fekir and raise his transfer fee, meaning more money to him, Fekir (if he gets a cut) and Lyon. Watch this space for more to come during and after the World Cup.

Here’s some more transfer rumors from across the Premier League and Europe:

(more…)