AFC Fifth Round – Jordan v Uzbekistan
They don’t get much bigger than this. Whoever comes out on top over the two legs will lock horns with the fifth-placed team from CONMEBOL’s World Cup qualifying tournament (who as it stands is Uruguay on goal difference) in the intercontinental play-offs. Both Jordan and Uzbekistan finished third in their respective groups in the fourth round thus play each other now.
Much will depend on what happens in the first leg in Amman, Jordan. Manager Hossam Hassan’s men will have the home support and momentum which could work in their favor. It’s worth pointing out too, that Jordan have never qualified for the World Cup. To say they’re hungry to qualify is an understatement of epic proportions. They were less than convincing in the fourth round though, shipping the most goals in the group (16) and only managing seven the other end (going three out of eight games without scoring). It could be said they were fortunate in the fact Oman and Iraq performed below par otherwise Jordan could have quite conceivably ended up lower down in the group.
Uzbekistan on the other hand, are a growing force in football. Their Under-20s punched well above their weight in the recent World Cup at that youth level and now the seniors have a genuine shot at – like Jordan – progressing to the World Cup for the first time in their history. ‘White Wolves’ as they are commonly known have come a long, long way courtesy of some much-needed managerial stability after eight different coaches in the last ten years. Following three foreign managers (including Englishman Bob Houghton) in three years, Uzbekistan put their faith in the country’s former Olympic team coach Rauf Inileev for 2010 World Cup qualifying. They reached the final stage before capitulating in Group A.
The current man in charge, Mirjalol Qosimov, a former free-scoring midfielder for the national side, has had two stints as coach. His first was from 2008-2010 but he was given the boot after losing more than he won. Last summer he was lured back and his record to date is significantly better: winning eight, drawing five and losing just three.
Qosimov is likely to take a cautious and conservative approach in Amman. Central midfielder Odil Ahmedov, of Anzhi in Russia, is instrumental in the middle and the team is more or less built around his needs. For Jordan, Abdallah Deeb – born and bred in Amman – and Hassan Abdel-Fattah are key in terms of creating chances and instigating attacks. If Uzbekistan can weather the storm early on and maybe silence the crowd with a goal inside the first 15-20 minutes, then the second leg in Tashkent will be a much easier proposition.
All World Cup qualifying is grueling but no more so than in Africa. At the beginning of proceedings, over 50 teams battle it out for just five World Cup spots. The second round sees 10 groups. To proceed to the next and final round you must top your respective group which is no mean feat. Ivory Coast, Egypt and Algeria have already secured their place in the third round.
There are a plethora of crucial matches to be played in Africa this week. But perhaps the most significant is Cameroon against Libya. The former are a renowned footballing force on the continent, home to a series of iconic players past and present. But they are currently engulfed in a political power play which has seen the country suspended by FIFA and scrambling to undo the sanction. It is a murky situation regarding the federation and government and one that is rather long-winded. The main thing is Cameroon do still have a chance of qualifying for the World Cup. And that is very important. This tie against Libya will be no walk in the park and they know it (having succumbed to a shock 2-1 defeat to them back in early June thanks to a last-gasp winner from Hamed Snous). A draw would be sufficient but Libya will more than fancy their chances even if it is in unfamiliar territory at the Stade Ahmadou Ahidjo in Yaoundé.
Libya is a rapidly developing football nation. In September last year, they earned their highest ever FIFA Ranking (36) and they are so close to a first ever appearance in the World Cup they can almost taste it. Boss Abdulhafeedh Arbeesh has forged a tremendously cohesive unit which has seen them be one of the surprise packages of World Cup qualifying so far. Infact, there are only seven other teams in the Second Round who are yet to lose a game. Libya are the eighth (winning two, drawing three). Cameroon will have their work cut out, but do possess an extremely well-equipped squad and are top for a reason.
The fact they were woeful at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa (losing all three outings) and didn’t even make the previous edition in Germany does speak volumes about their recent failure and this should spur them on (if they ever needed extra motivation) to qualify for next year. It does have to be said, though, that their performances in the Second Round have been thoroughly unconvincing. The three ties that they have reigned victorious in (against Congo DR and Togo twice) were tight and nervy. German Volker Finke’s men got very lucky against Togo second time around as FIFA awarded them a 3–0 win as a result of Togo fielding the ineligible player Alaixys Romao. The match originally ended 2–0 to the ‘The Sparrow Hawks’. And then as mentioned they couldn’t beat Libya and their last outing in late June against Congo DR saw them draw 0-0. It is worrying times indeed.
Captain and heartbeat of the team Samuel Eto’o – who has just joined Chelsea – is heavily relied upon for goals but only has two to his name (double v Togo). Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting also has two and looks a good prospect. The midfield is strong and the defence includes some big names so there is little reason why Cameroon have been stumbling so badly. On a brighter note, Barcelona B hotshot Jean Marie Dongou has been called up to the seniors after impressing for the Under-20s. His potential is frightening. Finke knows a draw is enough but he will no doubt want the win. Libya, as ever, won’t make it easy.
*Also take note of: Ghana v Zambia (Group D, CAF Second Round), Costa Rica v United States (Hexagonal, CONCACAF Fourth Round), Colombia v Ecuador (CONMEBOL), Russia v Israel (Group F, UEFA First Round), Ukraine v England (Group H, UEFA First Round)
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