Qantas Socceroos coach Holger Osieck must have cast his eye over Australia’s fourth-round World Cup qualification draw with a knowing sense of relief.
After all, the Socceroos had managed to avoid a slick-passing South Korea and historical rivals Iran, as well as a potentially tricky trip to Tashkent to take on Uzbekistan.
Instead, Australia has been drawn with regional powerhouses Japan, 2007 Asian Cup champions Iraq, third-round qualification rivals Oman and a relatively unknown Jordan. All four opponents present difficulties, but there’s no doubt the Socceroos should approach the group with an eye to finishing top.
Japan are stand-out group rivals not least because of our recent history with the Samurai Blue, whom we famously beat at the 2006 World Cup in Germany.
In 2010 World Cup qualifying a scoreless draw in Yokohama was followed by a Tim Cahill brace and another famous 2-1 win at the MCG, before Japan exacted a painful revenge by winning the 2011 Asian Cup trophy at Australia’s expense.
Playing our first home game out of Brisbane (Suncorp) Stadium is a tactical masterstroke. It’s the most intimate venue in Australia for a ground of its size and with Socceroos fans sitting right on top of the action, they’re bound to whip up a vibrant atmosphere against one of Asia’s most passionately supported outfits.
Japan coach Alberto Zaccheroni has more to worry about than what Ultras Nippon are getting up to in the stands.
Critics are beginning to question his over-reliance on European-based talent after Japan finished some six points behind Uzbekistan in third-round qualifying.
They may have plenty of highly-rated stars to call upon – think Keisuke Honda, Shinji Kagawa, Makoto Hasebe et al. – but Japan rarely travel well and won’t relish running out in front of a hostile crowd in Brisbane.
The group’s dark horses could well be Iraq, who recovered from a shock first-up home defeat to Jordan in the third round to win their next five games straight.
Mercurial striker Younis Mahmoud bagged six goals during that run – including a hat-trick against hapless Singapore – and together with his Al-Wakrah club team-mate Nashat Akram, the Lions of Mesopotamia possess enough individual talent to give the Socceroos and Samurai Blue plenty to think about.
Oman don’t quite have the same depth, but they do have one of the best Asian goalkeepers in recent history. Veteran Wigan Athletic shot-stopper Ali Al-Habsi is the key man for Paul Le Guen’s side and Oman showed they’re no pushovers by beating Australia 1-0 in Muscat in November 2011, with Saudi-based striker Imad Al-Hosni scoring the only goal of that game.
Tight-knit Jordan got off to a flyer in finishing second in their third round group behind Iraq, winning their first four fixtures before slumping to back-to-back losses at home to Iraq and away in China.
Striker Abdallah Deeb proved key and along with midfield maestro Hasan Abdel-Fattah, the pair could give the Socceroos defence some real headaches. The Jordanians can also rely on capacity crowds turning out the Amman International Stadium, suggesting they’ll be tough to beat when Australia visits in September.
Realistically though, there’s no reason Holger Osieck won’t sleep soundly in the bid to reach Brazil. He knows Japan well having twice coached Saitama-based outfit Urawa Reds, while familiar foes Oman hold no mysteries for the Socceroos.
Iraq loom as dark horses and while Jordan are an up-and-coming and somewhat unknown outfit, logic suggests Australia and Japan are the two teams most likely to duke it out for top spot.
That said, there’s still plenty that can go wrong on the road to Brazil. Injuries to key players, loss of form and the inevitable slip away from home are all potential pitfalls and Osieck will no doubt be on guard against complacency.
But with Japan replicating their 2010 qualification struggles and Iraq forced to play home games in Qatar, the chance exists for Australia to take Group B by the scruff of the neck and dictate terms in the fourth round of Asian qualifying.