x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

2015 Asian Cup qualifiers have a Real Madrid flavour

Coaches Juan Lopez Caro, Carlos Queiroz and Jose Antonio Camacho in respective dugouts for Saudia Arabia, Iran and China in 2015 Asian Cup qualifying.

Jose Antonio Camacho, the Spaniard, takes a training session with the China national team, who face Saudi Arabia today. AP Photo
Jose Antonio Camacho, the Spaniard, takes a training session with the China national team, who face Saudi Arabia today. AP Photo

As former Real Madrid coaches, both Juan Ramon Lopez Caro and Jose Antonio Camacho are used to high pressure encounters and they will draw on that know-how when their respective teams Saudi Arabia and China meet tonight in the opening round of qualification for the 2015 Asian Cup.

With Asia's top-ranked trio of Japan, South Korea and Australia already sure of a place in the continental tournament, to be hosted Down Under, two of the continent's struggling giants will be trying to join them.

"It's a huge coincidence that both managers for a Saudi Arabia-China match are Spanish, but that's the way it goes," said Lopez Caro, who succeeded Frank Rijkaard as the Saudi Arabia coach last month after the Gulf Cup.

"It proves that world football has no boundaries. It is just important that Saudi Arabia get the campaign off to a good start at home."

Saudi Arabia qualified for four World Cups from 1994 to 2006 but have since failed in qualification twice. They were dumped out of the 2011 Asian Cup and last month's Gulf Cup in the first round, leaving the team in urgent need of improved fortunes.

For China, these qualifiers are a chance to create some positive headlines. The departures of Didier Drogba and Nicolas Anelka from Shanghai Shenhua have damaged the image of Chinese football already this year. A 1-0 friendly defeat against a below-strength Oman in Muscat on January 30 made matters even worse.

A good result in Saudi Arabia would be a much-needed boost for fans at home and Camacho even took the team to Spain in January to prepare.

"We have progressed, but people have to realise we are starting from scratch and we have to take it step by step," Camacho told Chinese media from their training camp. "It is a different mentality to Spain or Europe, but they are changing and it is obvious that China is an engine that doesn't stop and you can see every step they make."

Group C also provides a chance for China to gain some revenge on Iraq. Two defeats to the west Asian team in 2011 put paid to Camacho's hopes of a place in the final round of qualification for the 2014 World Cup. Indonesia are the other team in the group.

China and Saudi Arabia are already out of the running for Brazil 2014 but some other teams begin Asia Cup qualifiers while still chasing World Cup dreams.

In Group A, Jordan and Oman are reunited. Oman host Syria while Jordan take on Singapore, in the first of a number of matchups between teams from south-east and west Asia.

Lebanon defeated Iran in qualification for the 2014 World Cup in September for the first time ever and the two teams, both still hopeful of a place in Brazil, meet once more in Tehran in Group B while Thailand host Kuwait in Bangkok.

"We have been improving lately," said the Iran coach Carlos Queiroz, another former Real Madrid coach who complained of time wasting by Lebanon in the recent Beirut meeting. "This is a chance for us to continue in our progress and we will be fully concentrating on the Lebanon game."

Qatar are another team in with a shout of World Cup participation and host Malaysia in Doha in Group D. Bahrain face Yemen in the remaining match.

While the UAE have travelled east to Vietnam for their 2015 Asian Cup qualifying match today, two of the Arabian Gulf's teams will be in action in the UAE on Match Day 1 today because of security concerns in their own countries.

Iraq and their coach Hakeem Shaker, who reached the final of the Gulf Cup last month, will play all their "home" qualifiers for Australia 2015 in Dubai.

Iraq take on Indonesia tonight (5.30 kick off) in Group C at Al Ahli's Rashid Stadium. Meanwhile, Yemen will face Bahrain at Sharjah Stadium in a Group D match (7.15pm kick off).

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