Monday, September 26, 2011

Bahdari talks to the Saudi Press

Source: Al-Watan (KSA)

Saudi newspaper Al-Watan had a half-page special on Bahdari today. He joined newly promoted Hajer this season in the Zain Saudi Professional league (background). After three matchdays, Hajer are at 9th place with three points from one win.
A lot of what is discussed in the interview was covered before on the blog so I only translated questions and answers selectively. (Here's an online link to the original interview.)

FP's translation:

You have been dubbed Palestine's ambassador to Saudi Arabia, what does that mean to you?
I hold that nickname dearly and try to perform my best to reflect the level Palestinian football has reached. I hope to succeed in this new experience to motivate other Palestinians to play abroad and to encourage clubs to acquire Palestinian players.

Why did you choose the Saudi league? Did you get offers from other leagues?
The Saudi league has a high reputation and is very developed compared to other Arab leagues. It also has a huge following from all over the Arab world, especially in Palestine. Playing in the Saudi league is a dream and a significant milestone in any Arab player's career.
I received offers from a number of Kuwaiti clubs and from Smooha in Egypt and Al-Ansar here in Saudi.

You were delayed in joining Hajer's summer training camp in Cairo...
The Israeli authorities were stubborn in giving me an exit visa from Gaza and Jordan to be able to join in time..I had to catch up with the team later in Al-Ahsa'a.

How would you address the expectations of Hajer supporters?

They should be patient with the team as it is newly promoted and most of its players haven't played at this level and still need time to harmonize together. I promise them I will perform in a way that reflects the club's history and deliver good matches with the team.

How do you see your team's chances?
Our goal is to continue for a second season in the top flight to gain experience playing the big clubs. This will give us the confidence needed to give better performances in future seasons.

Do you have your eyes set on any other clubs besides Hajer in the league?
Every player strives to play for the big clubs..I have those ambitions and hope to realize them after I succeed here.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

The search for a new NT manager continues... (part deux)

Perhaps the most frustrating part of being a fan of Palestine is having to put up with the inept PFA and their disorganization. Granted, most fans across the world have nothing but hate for their Football Associations regardless of how the national teams are doing on the pitch. Palestine's situation, is as always, unique. The fans don't ask much from the PFA just organize the domestic tournaments, hire a competent coaching staff, and make sure the national team can meet up regularly to contest friendlies on FIFA sanctioned days. Well in the past two months the PFA has failed on all counts. They started by caving to popular demand and electing not to renew Moussa Bezaz's contract and immediately announced that they were searching for a foreign manager with international experience to guide the team.

So far, so good.

Three weeks later the PFA agrees to a hastily organized friendly against Indonesia. The team is without a manager, without many of its top players (both foreign and domestic based), and has to re-adjust the schedule of the Yasser Arafat Cup.

Four weeks into the WBPL season the preseason special that is the Yasser Arafat Cup has yet to be completed. There is no word on how close the team is to finding a new manager, or if a domestic-based manager will take charge on an interim basis, or a friendly against South Africa is still going to be held.

So in order to help our friends at the PFA out, we've decided to formulate a list of possible candidates. The right manager could make all the difference and very rarely do Arab teams make the right call when hiring a foreign manager. Those of you who follow us on Twitter (@FutbolPalestine) will know that I have been very excited about Bob Bradley taking over Egypt. This is the kind of coach who either doesn't get hired or isn't provided with enough support to succeed in this part of the world.

Palestine doesn't need a big name or a famous player to come in and take over the national team job. It needs someone like Bob Bradley. Palestine can become a much better team if it has a manager that stresses physical fitness, discipline, and organization. As I said before the talent that Jordan has is comparable to the talent on this side of the river. In fact, I would much rather have Ramzi Saleh over Amer Shafi' in goal. In front of him I would rather have Abusidu, Bahdari, Jarun, and Bishara than Abu Attieh, the Bani Yasseen Bros., and Fathi. The reason why they are still in the running for Brazil 2014 (asides from a favorable draw) and we aren't comes down to the factors I just mentioned.

Below is a list of every manager that has popped into my head as a possible contender for the job:


Avoid at All Costs:

Lothar Matthäus: Has spent the past 10 years building up experience as a manager in Serbia, Austria, Brazil, Israel, Hungary, and most recently with the Bulgarian National Team. If I were to put money on it I bet he'll land somewhere in the Gulf very soon. People know him for his amazing career with Germany but he has replicated that form with the Hungarian or Bulgarian National Teams. He has walked out on teams before when the going has gotten tough (Hungary and Atletico Paranaense) and is known to be a very, very abrasive person. He was called in to steady the Bulgarian National Team and did the exact opposite.

Ezzat Hamzeh: Sometimes teams return to old managers in a time of need. He would be my absolute last choice. Some notable achievements- failed to qualify for the 2010 Challenge Cup and deciding Majed Abusidu was a holding midfielder.

Recently Fired:

Srecko Katanec: His first game in charge of the UAE came against Palestine back in 2009. The game ended in a 1-1 draw and the team played very well in the first half. By his own admission, Katanec had a group of very lazy and unprofessional players in the UAE. If he took the Palestine job he would be in charge of a group of committed and passionate individuals but who would need to be coached up. Katanec has managed underdogs before he got Slovenia to Euro 2000 and the World Cup Finals in 2002 and did a solid job with Macedonia before taking the UAE helm.

Alfred Riedl: I took the liberty of contacting him. He would be interested in taking over the job and in his latest stint as manager of Indonesia had an 81% winning percentage. Indonesian fans rate him and blame and inept FA (notice the theme here?) for unjustly firing him. He was manager of Palestine during the 2006 World Cup qualifying campaign- his finest hour were the 8-0 hammering of Chinese Taipei and a 1-1 draw with Iraq. Riedl managed these feats without organized training camps or a steady league from which to choose the players from. Imagine what he could do with the resources available today.

Zlatko Kranjcar: I had been suggested for his predecessor as manager of Montenegro- Zoran Filipovic but he has since taken a job in Kazakhstan. Under Kranjcar, Montenegro became masters of the 1-0 scoreline going on a seven game (including four Euro 2012 qualifiers) win streak without conceding a single goal.

The Wildcard:

Hisham Al-Zoabi: Recently left Al-Am'ary due to the club not paying him his wages. He won the league title with Al-Am'ary last year and left them at the top of the table this year after three matchdays. He has experience coaching and scouting players and has proven that he knows how to get the best out of his players. If the PFA is looking for someone to take control of the team on an interim role, Al-Zoabi is their guy.

Friday, September 23, 2011

On Home Support

The Palestinian Authority is at the UN filing for full membership as rallies and demonstrations are being held in the West Bank. As I mentioned on twitter (just plugging @FutbolPalestine,follow us!), I believe our FIFA membership does us more good than any upgrade at the UN will at this point. But, though I am convinced the PA move is a political charade, I am compelled to follow the events on the ground and at the UN. We've been hearing the term 'state-building' a lot and the PFA is no exception to this process. Every home match is touted as a political achievement. So maybe it is not a coincidence I decide to post about Palestine home support on this "historic" day. As demonstrated in the past few days and years, we are a people accustomed to rallying so it should come real easy getting a football crowd organized, or so you would think. First I'll explore the effect of home-field advantage, then talk about the role Palestine supporters play, or should play, in making it a reality.

To what extent does home-field advantage exist?

We use the term home-field advantage quite often when talking football and sports in general. What the term refers to is a collection of factors that vaguely come together to possibly favor the home team over the visiting opponent. These factors are quite pronounced in Asia.

The AFC is geographically the vastest confederation and traveling teams often have to make one or more stops on their way to destinations. Travel fatigue is therefore a very real threat to 'away' teams. And as diverse Asia is in its cultures, it is diverse in its climates so traveling teams may very well find themselves playing in conditions they are not used to.

Far from Riyadh, Saudi players endure the Pyongyang winter in a World Cup 2010 Qualifier

Another important factor is, of course, the home fans. Whether they motivate their countrymen to give their best on the field, or influence the referee to give decisions in favor of the home team, they have such an effect on the state of play that they are often dubbed the twelfth man.

All of this is theoretical and there is a debate on the effectiveness of home-field advantage with quite a few interesting studies out there. Lets make our own little study here looking at the last two matchdays of AFC 2014 World Cup Qualifiers. Of course we will need a lot more than just two matchdays to more accurately assess things and surely enough there are studies that analyze seasons worth of data. But sometimes its nice to keep things simple, right?
To analyze how home teams perform, I've split the results for home teams into two categories:
  • Favorable: A win, regardless of relative FIFA ranking, or a draw against a higher ranked opponent. (Example: Uzbekistan 1-1 Japan = favorable for UZB)
  • Unfavorable: Loss, regardless of relative ranking, or draw against lower ranked opponent.
Using these definitions, we'll find that 14 of the 20 matches result favorably for the home side (70%). This should convince us fairly enough that the 'homefield' is effective in Asia. Palestine would therefore be wise to make the most of it.

Of the three international matches played at the Faisal Husseini, Palestine's senior side drew them all (hey at least we're undefeated!). Only being allowed to play at home in 2008, we Palestinians should know and appreciate its value. Of the factors mentioned above, we can't control the climate, nor can we control the visiting team's journey, but we can control fan support. It is on this note I would like to turn focus on our supposed twelfth man.

The problem with support at the Faisal HusseiniLink

In the first match played at the Faisal Husseini against Jordan I was impressed by the support from the stands which was loud and energetic. The same goes for the support at the Olympic team's qualifiers earlier this year. However from behind my TV screen I couldn't help but feel the crowd wasn't doing what it was supposed to do at times and there were more than a few forum posts lamenting the lack of a "support culture" among the fans. I didn't fully understand what this meant until I went to the Faisal Husseini myself last July for a World Cup Qualifier. I don't remember hearing the whole stadium chant in unison at any point. Transportation and ticketing might have a lot to do with it. Many fans get to the stadium in private buses from their respective cities. The buses are organized by club supporter groups and what ends up happening as the large groups arrive one after the other is that the different sections fill up with supporters of particular clubs. If you want mass chanting, this seating doesn't help as you'd notice different sections each doing their own thing with fans cheering as they would for their club, but throwing in 'Falasteen', rather than their club name, every now and then.

You can't blame them, Palestine only started playing at home three years ago. For most of their lives, the only 'home' teams most of these fans knew were their club teams therefore it is no surprise there is a lack of unified 'support culture' for the national team. This could change with time as more home matches are played and a more organized 'National Team supporter club' is developed.

What about Dora?

Sitting in the main stand, I noticed the section to the right of me was the loudest and it was populated by Dhahrieh (a suburb of Al-Khalil) supporters. The supporters from Al-Khalil and its suburbs are passionate and plentiful, which makes sense as it is the most populated region in the West Bank. The Al-Khalil derby, played at Dora International Stadium, between Shabab Al-Khalil and Dhahrieh always records the biggest turnouts in the league.

The Al-Khalil derby last friday ended 1-0 for Shabab - Always impressive crowd support from both sides

It would therefore seem to be a fine idea to host international matches in Dora as it would guarantee a full house, and thus, maximum home support. But a couple of points might favor the Faisal Husseini over Dora at the end of the day...

1. Location
The Faisal Husseini is near Ramallah and just outside Jerusalem. Ramallah is already accustomed to receiving international visitors so from a logistical point of view, it more convenient to host international teams there. Compared to Al-Khalil, it also acts as more of a middle ground for supporters from other cities. In addition to being convenient, the Faisal Husseini's location is also symbolic. For political purposes the PFA considers it to be in Jerusalem and thus would prefer to host the National Team's matches there, especially the big ones.

2. Diversity of fan support
This builds on the location point. Lets be realistic, if a match is hosted in Dora, 90% of the people in the stands will be from the surrounding area. Shabab Al-Khalil and Dhahrieh fans will be the majority and I am sure this would create an amazing atmosphere, but it won't be good for developing that 'unified support culture' talked about above. If we do end up with a support culture coming out of Dora, it will have a distinct Al-Khalil character..which might not be a bad thing come to think of it. But I prefer the diversity in the Faisal Husseini stands.

It is safe to assume the PFA won't abandon the Faisal Husseini in favor of Dora and that's probably for the better. But it wouldn't hurt to host a few international matches in Dora, we could very well be impressed by the results.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Crisis brewing in Al-Am'ary


Three games, three wins, 10 goals. Al-Am'ary started their defence of the WBPL league with aplomb. But less than a month into the season, cracks are beginning to appear and they have very little with Al-Am'ary's performance on the pitch.

Capitano reported this morning that Hisham Al-Zoabi has resigned as manager claiming that he had not been paid in months. To compound the clubs problems, a high profile recruit- Luab Kayal- has opted to void his contract and sign with Ashdod FC of the Israeli topflight.

The main question fans are now asking is whether or no there might be a liquidity problem within the club. Al-Am'ary spared no expense in the offseason bringing in Ahmed Keshkesh, Ismail Amour, Assem Abu Assi, Houssam Wadi (who is stuck in Gaza at the moment), and Hamudi Kayal. With such big name (and costly) talent coming into supplement a championship-winning squad could it be possible that Al-Am'ary be experiencing solvency problems?

We don't know much about the situation now but I will say this- I don't think Luab Kayal's departure has anything to do with money. His first choice was always to remain in Israel in the hopes that he could catch the eye of a scout and move to Europe. He only signed the deal with Al-Am'ary when it looked like no top tier teams were interested in him. The fact that he has two separate identities in the football realm meant that he could always unilaterally end his contract with Al-Am'ary. Moreover, there could have been a clause in his contract that allowed him to leave if he received an offer from abroad (much like how Abdelatif Bahdari left Shabab Al-Khaleel for Hajer).

From a footballing point of view, Kayal faced stiff competition getting into the side. Al-Am'ary is stacked with players that play for Palestine and they've all started the season well which has forced Kayal to settle for substitute's role. It seems that Kayal would have been a better fit in another WBPL club- one that might be a little short in midfield.

Either way, it will be interested to see how the league leaders and defending champions respond to this crisis.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Get to know Mohammed Shatrit

Friend of the blog, and creator of the very well maintained 'Palestine national football team' Facebook page Amin Ziad got in touch with Palestine and FC Issy forward Mohammed Shatrit. France-based Shatrit, who was part of the AFC Challenge Cup qualification squad, details his experience with the National Team and the WBPL's Shabab Al-Khalil. Here is the text..

Football Palestine: Tell us Palestinian football fans out there a little bit about yourself and your football career..

Mohammed Shatrit: I'm 28 years old. I'm from Halhoul just close to the city of Khalil (Hebron). All my family is in Palestine. in 2006 I signed professional contract in Liga 1 in Tunisia. It was a very good experience. But I came back to France after that for a French team in liga 3 but I got injured few months after. Unlucky. But when I recovered I found another challenge with a team JA Drancy in 2007 till December 2010. We finished champions in 2008 and in 2009. I finished top scorer in 2008 with 21 goals in 27 games. I started in liga 6 with the team (JA Drancy) and I left them in liga 3. In 2011 I came to Shabab al Khalil. But I didnt play very well. I agree.

FP: Did you ever consider playing international football before? How were you approached to represent Palestine internationally?

MS: I was at work and a colleague told me that the Palestinian national football team would be in Belgium. So I took the train from Paris to Brussels the day after with my training clothes. I told the former coach Ezzat Hamza that I was a football player and Palestinian. He was very nice with me. He told me ok no problem change your clothes and come on the pitch. I would like to thank him and Moussa Bezaz too.

FP: When you scored your first goal for Palestine vs Dynamo Moscow, how did it feel?

MS: I did feel very good and proud really very proud maybe the best memory as football player.

FP: Who/which of the national team players did you get most closely acquainted with?

MS: All are my friend and more they are like brothers. I was very close to Abdallah Sidawi i really love him and Shbair, Al Amour, Eyad Abu Gargoud, Bahdari, Jarun, Said abu Salim, Khader Youssef and all of them.

FP: In your brief time with the NT, what were the negatives and the positives you experienced?

MS: Negative things are that I didn't play any minutes in Myanmar for Challenge Cup qualification but all the rest was very positive and wonderful. Wallah i enjoyed to come everytime.

FP: What did you think of the teams performance in the Challenge Cup Qualifiers?

MS: Very good, we qualified and that was what we came for. And now our FIFA ranking is better too.

FP: How do you see your chances to represent Palestine in the future?

MS: I think that they won't call me back. I'm sad but if anybody gives me chance I will be very happy and proud to play my best football.

FP: How was your relationship with former French-Algerian coach Mousa Bezaz? And how was he as a coach?

MS: At the beginning it was very good and he gave me chance to play. I would like to thank him. But after I was less good after my foot injury. I started to get less playing time. But hamdulila now I'm better. And Bezaz was a very good coach he tried to make us as professional as possible and thanks to him we improved.

FP: When you came to the WBPL and Shabab Al-Khalil from France, many fans had high expectations from you.. but you only scored 1 goal that season. What is your comment on that?

MS: I agree I scored only 1 goal but look I didn't play too much in attack because we needed players in midfield. And I was not very happy because Shabab Al-Khalil lied to me. They didn't give me my salaries. And they were not professional. It was better with coach Samir Issa. We didn't get a very good team when I came. But me too I was not on the top during my short experience. But my head was never quiet.. I always had to think about how to pay things in Paris and help my family. It was difficult but I would like to thank very much all the fans. They were good with me. So, I didn't score because I often played in midfield.

FP: What is your club situation?

MS: FC Issy in Liga 4. Very good team.

FP: Are you planning to come back to the Palestinian league?

MS: I don't know, why not. But next time I'll be more careful.

FP: What is your dream club, the club that you aspire to play for some day?

MS: Where destiny drives me!

FP: Lastly, would you like to say a word to Palestinian football fans?

MS: Thank you very much for supporting our national teams.
And I would like to thank Mr. Jibril Rajoub for hosting me like a brother. I hope to play again for Palestine and Inchallah god Will give us better days.


Tuesday, September 13, 2011

WBPL Roundup

With the first two weeks of WBPL action in the books let's take a look at the main talking points so far:

Status quo unchanged:

Last season finished with Al-Am'ary and Hilal Al-Quds joint top with Dhahrieh and Balata rounding out the top 4. Incidentally, that's the exact order of the top four two weeks into the 2011/12 season. It seems that many teams are still coming together after a slew of changes in the offseason, the most prominent example being Shabab Al-Khaleel. The Hebronites have added last season's top scorer Eyad Abugharqud and Palestine's second all time goal scorer Fahed Attal but have only managed two goals through two games.

PFA not hesitant in handing out fines:

It seems the PFA is adamant that the WBPL be a haven for good, positive play from the fans and players alike. On an individual level Ali El-Khatib is being fined $282 and will miss 4 matches after getting himself sent off against Jabal Al-Mukaber in the opener. There were minor fines handed out for what amounted to dangerous or negative play. Four players from Thaqafi Tulkarem who had received yellow cards were given $14 fines, they include:

Muath Mustafa, Fadi Hasasneh, Hassan Barhosh, & Abdullah Al-Tabl.

As expected, there was action taken to punish fans who threw projectiles onto the field during the Balata-Al-Bireh match. Both teams will lose two home games and have been fined $700.

The most surprising fines were handed out for "negative group chanting directed at the opposing team". I'm not sure what was said to merit a $700 fine but I don't think the FA should be attempting to silence the most vocal fans in the WBPL. Palestinian supporters are overwhelmingly positive, the banter amongst supporter groups is mostly civil as they know each other from following the national team. It is a situation not dissimilar from the one in Major League Soccer where the success of the American national team preceded the formation of a professional league.

Young keepers struggling:

There has been a concerted effort to find a successor to Ramzi Saleh in goal. Luckily for the National Team, Saleh is only 31 and has many years of football left in him because Toufic Ali, Mohammed Shbair, and Fahed Al-Fakhuri haven't exactly impressed this season. Shbair hasn't been horrible, he does after all, have a clean sheet to his name. But the goal he let in against Al-Bireh was soft. Shbair does this thing (he did it against Thailand when they scored on a free kick) where he stares at the ball almost wishing for it to go out instead of making an intervention. He's only 24, so hopefully he'll learn from these mistakes and become a better keeper.

Fahed Al-Fakhuri let up four goals against a Jabal Al-Mukaber side that just lost 4-0 the previous week. Obviously not all the goals were his fault but you really can't be considered the goalkeeper of the future and be leaking goals left and right.

Toufic Ali had a HORRIBLE game against Hilal Al-Quds. I am beginning to think that the only reason he is held in such high regard is because he's well over two meters tall. Instinctually, Ali just lacks a certain something. He let Murad Alyan free kick go in despite the fact that it wasn't hit with any particular pace and then flapped at a non-threatening cross which resulted in Maen Jamal's winning goal.

To put it simply, if I were the new manager I would lift Abduallah Al-Saidawi's suspension from the national team. He isn't as good as Ramzi Saleh- but he is definitely the best GK in the WBPL, it isn't even close. The PFA should also keep an eye on Samir Badr- a 19 year-old Palestinian American playing for FC Porto's reserves. It's a little early to start thinking about Ramzi Saleh's successor but its better to err on the side of caution. Badr is already part of the United States setup but he could fall through the cracks due to the sheer amount of competition he faces to break into the senior side. Tim Howard, at 32, is showing no signs of slowing down his backup, Brad Guzan (27), is his presumptive successor. Making Badr's task more difficult are the slew of good keepers in MLS and the fact that Klinsmann has picked DC United's Bill Hamid as his goalkeeping pet project.

WBPL Team of the Week (Week 2)*:

GK: Fahed Helseh (Jabal Al-Mukaber)

D: Adham Abu Rweis (Balata), Mustafa Abu Kweik (Al-Bireh), Murad Ismail (Hilal Al-Quds), Bashar Abu Nijmeh (Shabab Al-Khaleel)

M: Atef Abu Bilal (Dhahrieh), Thaer Qaraeen (Jabal Al-Mukaber), Mahmoud Awdeh (Al-Bireh), Ismail Amour (Al-Am'ary)

F: Murad Alyan (Hilal Al-Quds), Said Al-Sobakhi (Wadi Al-Nes)

Best Manager: Ayoub Jaber (Jabal Al-Mokaber)
Best Sub: Ahsan Sadeq (Balata)

*As selected by the fans on Kooora.com

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Bahdari's Time to Shine

Abdel-Latif Bahdari is one of the several success stories Palestinian football has seen in the past few years. From modest beginnings with Khadmat Rafah in Gaza, his breakthrough came in a loan move to Hilal Areeha(Jericho). The center back was subsequently called up that summer to partner Saeb Jendeya in the 2008 WAFF Championship in Iran where despite his rawness and inexperience, he demonstrated a smart sense of positioning and the potential to become a fixture in the national team back-line, especially given his height and strength. His emergence couldn't have come at a better time as veteran captain Jendeya was preparing to hang his international boots (surely enough Jendeya was later forced into premature retirement due to Israeli travel restrictions).

After a very brief loan to Shabab Al-Am'ary, he transferred to Jordan giants Wehdat in 2009 and spent a fruitful two years there. As his contract was coming to a close, there was much speculation as to where he would go next.

He was linked with a Kuwaiti club and Shabab al-Khaleel when the surprise announcement came that he signed a 2 year contract (~$280,000) with newly promoted Hajer in the Saudi top division. He is one of the four foreigners the club signed to bolster its ranks as it returned to the top flight for the first time in 13 years. At first there was a little scare as to whether he was going to actually join his new team as visa requirements and family issues were cited and it was even claimed Egyptian clubs were trying to woo him away. Whatever happened, he made the trip to Al-Ahsaa' in the East of the Kingdom and started preparing for the new season.

If forum posts are anything to go by, he has so far impressed his new fans. He even grabbed a goal in a friendly against fellow East-coasters Qadissiya. The Saudi Zain Professional League 2011/12 season started yesterday and Hajer play their first game tonight (17:30 GMT) against defending champs Hilal FC. The opponent from the capital Riyadh is the most cash-infused club in the league thanks to backing of princes and lucrative sponsorship deals and consequently boasts the biggest signings. Their offense has the likes of young Moroccan international Yousef Al-Arabi, Korea's Yoo-Byung Soo and Cameroonian Achille Emana. Bahdari and Hajer couldn't have asked for a tougher test in their opening game which they will play in front of home fans.

Playing in one of the strongest leagues in the region, Bahdari is the Palestine player to watch this season. We will be keeping a close eye on his Saudi adventure throughout as he and his club set out to prove themselves.

Hajer vs Al-Hilal
Zain Saudi Professional League
Saudi Sports 2 (streams TBA) 17:30 GMT

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Asian World Cup Qualifying Roundup (September 2011)

The first games of the Third Round, sans Palestine, kicked off last week. We'll be covering qualifying until the last matchday with observations on how the landscape of Asian Football is changing.

What We Learned:

1. Stability pays off: The AFC is notorious for high managerial turnover, with most coaches lucky to last two years in their position. Four out of the Five group leaders (Australia, Iran, Japan, & Korea Republic) replaced their managers in 2010 or 2011. That said the reigns of Holger Osieck, Carlos Queiroz, Alberto Zaccheroni, & Cho Kwang-Rae were preceded by a set of coaches who despite their unpopularity, brought stability to their national team set-up. Contrast that with the travails of the Saudi National Team who have had four different coaches in this past calendar year alone. Frank Rijkaard is a great coach but no one can be expected to deliver results after only a month on the job with no opportunity to see the domestic league in action.

2. Team spirit is an important ingredient: The shock of the second matchday was Lebanon defeating UAE 3-1 only four days after getting hammered 6-0 by Korea Republic. It remains to be seen whether or not this is an anomalous result for Lebanon or the start of a new more promising era. That said, you have to hand it to The Cedars for not giving up after going down early with the 6-0 reverse in their mind and with the Emirati supporters drowning out whatever home support there was. On the flip side, I have never such lazy play in a must-win game from an established Asian side. So much ball-watching, so little urgency, the Emiratis seemed to think that goals were owed to them. Srecko Katanec got the sack after the game but his players are far from blameless.

3. Asian football is improving: Asian football remains extremely underappreciated by outsiders. The acquisition of Park Chu-Young by Arsenal was widely mocked, the Asian Cup is perhaps the least covered continental championship (Oceania excepted), and players not from the "Big Three" of Australia, Japan, & Korea Republic are relatively unknown outside their homelands. It is safe to say that the Big Three will qualify for Brazil 2014 but they are sure to have their noses bloodied along the way. Japan and Korea Republic dropped points in Uzbekistan and Kuwait respectively while Australia were pushed to the brink at home by a tactically aware and organized Thailand. The advancement of the middle and lower tiers of Asia makes the football more fun to watch and will ensure that the World Cup representatives are better vetted ahead of Brazil 2014.

The Teams (In two sentences)

Group A:

Adnan Hamed- Jordan's master organizer

Jordan: One of only two teams with a 100% record after two matchdays. Adnan Hamed has them playing organized and effective counterattacking football; as I said before they're like a well-coached Palestine.

Iraq: Not quite the 2007 vintage but still a very good team, the loss to Jordan was unexpected but they recovered with a win against Singapore. Zico will need to solve problems in the final third; Iraq played some free-flowing football against Singapore that didn't result in goals.

China: Gao Hongbo had done a fine job in his two years in charge of the National Team so the decision to hire Jose Antonio Camacho last month is puzzling, to say the least. The Great Wall needed a questionable penalty to overcome Singapore at home and against Jordan they rarely troubled GK Amer Shafia.

Singapore: Singapore were victims of a poor refereeing that allowed China to equalize from the spot. The Lions are not to be underestimated and could spring an upset or two but their dependence on Aleksandar Duric (41) is troubling.

Group B:


Park Chu-Young: North London bound

Korea Republic: The Tigers got a point from their toughest away encounter in the group against Kuwait. Park Chu-Young has four goals to his name in qualifying and is a joy to watch.

Kuwait: Looked fantastic against UAE until leaking two late goals to set up a tense finish en route to a 3-2 away win. Bolstered their defensive credentials with a fine display against Korea Republic which earned them a point.

Lebanon: With their toughest fixture out of the way and only a point behind the group's leaders, qualification for the final round remains a mathematical possibility. Their win yesterday however was the product of truly atrocious defending from the UAE.

UAE: Ranked next to last among the 20 remaining teams in qualifying. Mohammed bin Hammam summed it up nicely in 2009: "The UAE has good facilities, stadiums, coaches, and the rest. But what is missing? The main factor is the players."

Group C

Ahmedov- One of Asia's finest

Japan: A late winner against Korea DPR at home and a late equalizer against Uzbekistan has given that Asian Champs a straightforward route to the Final Round. Maximum points against Tajikistan in back-to-back meetings should all but clinch qualification.

Uzbekistan: Not a recognized name on the world stage but make no mistake Uzbekistan has been a top 10 AFC nation for the past decade. The Uzbeks have some of the best off the ball movement on the continent with Server Djeparov and Odil Ahmedov pulling the strings in midfield.

Korea DPR: There are three possible score lines in a game involving Korea DPR: 1-0, 0-0, 0-1. Japan and Uzbekistan's quality should prove a bridge too far.

Tajikistan: Only here because of Syria's unexpected disqualification. They will benefit from this experience with the Challenge Cup around the corner.

Group D:

Australia- Kruse Control.

Australia: Made to sweat it out against Thailand but were excellent in their second game against Saudi Arabia. Six points in two tough encounters have them well on their way to the final round.

Thailand: Winnie Schaeffer has harnessed the potential of this Thai team. Rampant against Oman and tactically excellent against Australia the War Elephants can be proud of their accomplishments. Away matches in West Asia await where they have an atrocious away record (3W 9D 18L- Last win in 2004 vs. Yemen).

Saudi Arabia: If Rijkaard gets the boot you can forget about The Greens getting out of the group. Expect the Dutchman to shake up the squad and once he's had a chance to scout the Zain Pro League which kicks off this Friday.

Oman: Answered Saudi Arabia flatness in the first game with indifference. Looked absolutely horrible against Thailand and were lucky to escape with only a 3-0 score line, Paul Le Guen has his work cut out for him.

Group E:

Ansarifard- Misfiring for Iran

Iran: Fantastic skill on the ball is to be expected from Team-e-Melli and the new system put in place by Carlos Queiroz has preserved that. Much like their neighbors, Iraq, the problem has been their wastefulness in front of goal.

Bahrain: The supposed fifth best team in Asia according to the AFC's pre-tournament seeding. That title will be put to the test against Iran (twice) and Qatar away but at the time of writing are joint top of Group D on 4 points.

Qatar: The saving grace for Al-Enabi is that the three other managers in the group all took over in 2011. Getting something out of the Iran game was huge but they will need to take care of Bahrain at home now after letting two points slip away in Manama.

Indonesia: A very inconsistent team with a new manager at the helm so not much can be expected. Followers of Palestine will remember that the B-team was up 1-0 in Solo and looking comfortable with 25 minutes to play; I think that is more indicative of Indonesia's level than the four goals they scored afterward.