Saudi thumping offers little hope for Asian upturn in Russia

AFP
Asia's quartet of World Cup representatives failed to deliver a single victory four years ago and hopes of a turnaround in Russia are low, with continental powerhouses Japan...
AFP
AFP

Asia's quartet of World Cup representatives failed to deliver a single victory four years ago and hopes of a turnaround in Russia are low, with continental powerhouses Japan and South Korea struggling for form.

Five nations qualified from the Asian confederation for the 2018 World Cup but Saudi Arabia's 5-0 thumping at the hands of the hosts in the tournament opener followed the pattern of miserable performances and results for Asian sides in Brazil.

In the 16 years since Japan and South Korea hosted the tournament, with the latter reaching the semi-finals, they have each only made it beyond the group stages once, in 2010.

Frenchman Philippe Troussier took Japan to the last 16 on home soil in 2002 but believes they have "no chance" of making the knockout phase this time despite avoiding the tournament favourites in their group.

Japan sacked coach Vahid Halilhodzic in April but the decision to hire Akira Nishino has failed to inspire an immediate turnaround in fortunes, with warm-up friendly defeats against Ghana and Switzerland.

"Even if they play with (Jose) Mourinho or Arsene Wenger, it would be so difficult for Japan to get to the last 16," Troussier told AFP.

Halilhodzic's unwillingness to use some of Japan's star names such as Keisuke Honda and Shinji Kagawa resulted in his dismissal.

However, even with their return, Japan lack the individual talent available to their opponents in Group H. Colombia boast the talent of James Rodriguez, Poland can field Robert Lewandowski and Liverpool's Sadio Mane is the star man for Senegal.

- Spurs star Son -

South Korea do have one outstanding talent in Tottenham's Son Heung-min.

Son scored 18 goals this season, including four in seven Champions League games, but has struggled to recreate that form when tasked with being the main man for his country.

Defeats to Bosnia and Senegal either side of a drab 0-0 draw with Bolivia in warm-up games have done little to inspire confidence that South Korea can rival Mexico or Sweden for second place behind Group F favourites Germany.

The Saudis' poor showing in Moscow against an unfancied Russia also does not bode well for an Australian side that finished below them in qualifying and face the might of France on Saturday.

Australia had to go through a mammoth 22-game qualifying campaign, including two playoffs, to make it to Russia.

However, they too have undergone a recent change in coach with Bert van Marwijk, who took the Netherlands to the final in 2010, inspiring an upturn in fortunes with recent wins against the Czech Republic and Hungary.

Despite a myriad of problems including cancelled warm-up friendlies and Nike's decision to stop supplying boots due to US sanctions, Iran may provide the Asian confederation's best chance of registering a win.

Carlos Queiroz's men stormed through qualifying undefeated in 18 games, conceding just five goals in the process.

Queiroz's defensive set-up frustrated Nigeria and Argentina four years ago and their opening game against Morocco on Friday offers an early chance to make an impression before tougher tasks against Spain and Portugal.

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