Monday, January 13, 2014

Will Palestine rise to the occasion in 2014?



In contrast to 2012, Palestine was a bit of a mixed bag. After all, in 2012 Palestine started the year using a good Pan-Arab games campaign as momentum going into the 2012 Challenge Cup. That tournament ended in a 2-0 loss to eventual champions Korea DPR but going forward Palestine were able to hang their hats on good performances in the Arab Cup and the WAFF Championship. Although both tournaments ended with Palestine going out at the group stage; the feeling was that Palestine was ready to take the next step under Jamal Mahmoud.

Palestine played fewer games in 2013. There were offensive explosions in friendlies against India and Malaysia that bookended a laborious Challenge Cup qualifying campaign where only Palestine-based players featured. 


Areas of concern

After March, Palestine only played into two friendlies on non-FIFA dates at the behest of their hosts. Qatar and Jordan invited Palestine to play on non-FIFA dates in April and August, respectively. Palestine played well, given their inexperienced squad, against Qatar in April but lost 2-0

Their 4-1 loss in August to Jordan was nothing short of a disaster. 

It was perplexing to see Palestine not scheduling friendlies on FIFA dates. The PFA claimed that they had many overtures rejected, but in general this is an entity that leaves a lot of organization for the last minute. Season schedules are revealed weeks before the games are due to be played a detailed schedule is often not available until the last minute and matches are routinely organized on FIFA dates. Other FAs routinely cancel friendlies which may not be an issue if there was a penalty clause tied to cancelation for reasons other than force majeure.

As far as the entity itself, the PFA still has a long way to go and although the national team has evolved at the senior level; the problems that plagued the women's and junior sides ten years ago are still very much present today. 

Most fans tend to ignore institutional deficiencies and scapegoat an individual player or manager. After Palestine failed to advance from its group at the 2014 WAFF Championship, fans started calling for Jamal Mahmoud's head. 

There were a lot of reasons for concern: Not being able to score a single goal over 180 minutes of play, inability to possess the ball consistently over 90 minutes, and not registering a win against weakened Qatari and Saudi sides.

Bringing Al-Swerki on for Zatara late in a must-win game against Saudi Arabia sent the wrong message and was a substitution that would have been more appropriate 48 hours earlier. In general, it seemed as if Mahmoud was hesitant in making the impactful, bold substitution that could have turned one of these matches in Palestine's favor. 


Positives 



Mustafá (R) and Bahdari were dominant
Mahmoud started the tournament by claiming that Palestine were not here just to participate or test out players but to win the tournament. He failed to do that and has since owned up to the failure. That said, there are some positives to take from the campaign. 

At the very least, fitness and stamina concerns were non-issue for this group of players thanks to a grueling two-a-day practice schedule in the lead-up to the WAFF Championship. 

Palestine were grouped with the hosts and eventual champions and were very effective at dulling their attack which went on to score seven times in the next three games. 

At the very least, fitness and stamina concerns were non-issue for this group of players thanks to a grueling two-a-day practice schedule in the lead-up to the WAFF Championship. 

Palestine have determined their best defensive pairing ahead of the 2014 Challenge Cup. The partnership of Abdelatif Bahdari and Daniel Kabir Mustafá is deadly effective- Mustafá is quicker and more athletic than the man he essentially replaced- Omar Jarun. Left Back is an area of concern but with Alexis Norambuena back in the fold in May this is a unit that is battle ready. 

Rethink? 

The questions lie elsewhere on the pitch. Palestine played with no point of attack in the middle of the pitch, and Murad Ismail was often tasked with covering for Mustafá whenever he shifted left to assist Abujazar. The absence of Abdelhamid Abuhabib was cited for the poor performance and it certainly didn't help that his natural replacement- Eid Akawi- was unable to make the trip. 

Peto Kettlun: Time for a recall?
Perhaps Jamal Mahmoud should think about recalling Roberto Kettlun precisely for the fact that he is unlike any other player on his roster. His set-piece skills are second to none but his true value is that he is calm in possession and his passing is deadly accurate. Not to mention, the respect he commands in the dressing room, this is a guy who voluntarily moved to Palestine to continue his playing career and played a big role in getting guys like Alexis Norambuena and DKM to join the squad. 

Further up the pitch, one will hope that a move to Saudi Arabia will teach Ashraf Nu'man that his speed will only get him so far and that if he starts to play unselfishly he could be something truly special. 

As for strikers, Palestine is facing the prospect of not having Fahed Attal available for yet another tournament. His replacement has yet to step up and grab the opportunity with both hands- Eyad Abugharqud struggled to make an impact against Qatar missing a golden opportunity to put Palestine up 1-0 in the first half. He however kept his starting position against Saudi Arabia at the expense of Lebanon-based Ibrahim Swidan and youngster Laith Kharoub. 

Perhaps Gaza-based Mohammed Barakat or Alaa Attieh could force their way back into the squad. Dare we count out the mercurial, raw, but super-talented Khaled Salem? 

In essence, though, Palestine is just really hoping that Imad Khalili will accept the call to represent the national team. 

Are Palestine favorites to win the 2014 Challenge Cup? 

Palestine might just be favorites by default. Just this week, the Philippines FA made the bold decision to fire Michael Weiss. The German has to take a lot of credit for transforming the Philippines into a side capable of challenging for a spot in Australia. It may be the right decision for the Azkals in the long-term but the timing of the change is suspect. Even if the Southeast Asian side gets the high profile manager it craves, one has to wonder if he will have enough time to prepare for the Challenge Cup in four months time. 

Turkmenistan has played a grand total of two games in 2013- beating lowly Cambodia 7-0 but losing to Philippines 1-0. Perhaps this mysterious team has kept their preparations under wraps but you would have to think that their players are at a distinct disadvantage with the timing of this tournament- the Yokary Liga has just ended and players will not see a competitive match with their clubs for another three months. 

The only other team with the experience of making a deep run in this tournament are Myanmar and Kyrgyzstan. It remains to be seen if the 2014 version of those teams are on the same level of previous vintages. Maybe Afghanistan has another Cinderella story to tell or perhaps the Maldives can parlay home field advantage. 

It's a tournament that could be won by virtually all the teams participating but it seems, for now, that Palestine are favorites by default.