Saudis restore Al Johar to hotseat
There's none of this 'mutual consent' nonsense when it comes to parting company with your coach in Saudi Arabia. A 2-1 defeat at the hands of Syria in the opening match of the 2011 Asian Cup and the replacement of Jose Peseiro with Nassar Al Johar marked the 58th coaching change in the hottest of hotseats since 1957.
Saudi Football Association chief Prince Sultan Bin Fahd Bin Abdulaziz was fairly brutal in his post-match assessment. "It was necessary to correct these mistakes," said Abdulaziz. "He chose the wrong tactics for the game against Syria and a squad that was not suitable for the game. We needed to correct that. It was clear that the style he adopted against the Syrians paralyzed the players. This became clear during the match. We had to correct this mistake which is why we let him go."
When Abdulrazak Al Husein scored his and Syria's second after 63 minutes, Peseiro must have realized that his job was in danger. He had somehow stayed in the position after the failure to qualify for the 2010 World Cup, saved by the fact that he had taken over midway through the campaign at a time when things had taken a turn for the worse.
If you live by the Saudi scimitar then more often than not, you die by it and nobody knows that better than Al Johar who takes the helm for the fifth time and replaces the man who replaced him in February 2009. The Saudis are hoping that history repeats itself. In 2000, Al Johar stepped in at the same point of the same tournament to replace Milan Macala and took the Falcons all the way to the final. It is that version of the former Al Nasr star that the federation wants and not the one that was fired in February 2009 after successive defeats in qualification for the 2010 World Cup, or the one that was in charge when the Saudis lost 8-0 to Germany in 2002.
Back to 2011 and the Syria win and subsequent sacking ended the opening weekend of the Asian Cup in dramatic fashion. Saudi Arabia and Japan were not overly concerned about being drawn in the same group. The pair have won six of the last seven continental titles between them and felt that by the time they faced each other in the final match of the group, progression to the quarter-finals would have been assured after wins over outsiders Syria and Jordan.
But just before the Syrian shock, Japan managed to snatch a point against a resolute Jordan with a last-minute Maya Yoshida header. The VVV Venlo defender was the man who deflected the Hassan Abdel Fattah shot past his 'keeper in the first half but made amends in the dying seconds. Samurai Blue had dominated proceedings but struggled to put the ball in the net.
With Jordan defending ever deeper, Japan's stars such as Keisuke Honda and Shinji Kagawa found themselves restricted to long-range efforts that did little to trouble the impressive Amer Sabbah in goal. As an Italian, coach Alberto Zaccheroni knows better than most that too much shouldn't be read into the opening games of tournaments. He also knows however that a repeat against Syria will not go down well at home.
Qatar are already at home and disappointed the 37,000 or so fans. With 15 minutes left, many of the locals had left, not giving the watching world, one waiting to seize upon any misstep in order to once again call into question the 2022 World Cup decision, the best first impression.
They get a second chance against China on matchday two. The East Asians joined Uzbekistan at the top of the group with a 2-0 win over Kuwait, benefitting from deflections and decisions on the way. It wasn't the smoothest of performances from a Chinese team derided as 'rough' by some Arabian newspapers but it will do for Gao Hongbo who will be reminding his young players that back in 2007, the team won their opener 5-1 but still failed to get to the next stage. The fact that Uzbekistan are once again the final group opponents hasn't gone unnoticed either.
In Group C, the two big boys picked up expected opening wins. Australia recorded up a 4-0 win over India that was as comfortable, and expected, as they come. The Bhangra Boys gave their all, though were not disgraced and were able to thank goalkeeper Subrata Paul for a very good performance. India are now focused on, if not trying to pick up a point then at least trying to keep the goals against column in single figures.
For the Aussies, tougher tests lie ahead in the shape of the South Koreans - who put on the best footballing display of the tournament to date in defeating Bahrain 2-1. Korea really should have been out of sight before a harsh late penalty given to the West Asian team and a mystifying late red card shown to defender Kwak Tae-hwi. But the two goals from Koo Ja-Cheol gave the young Taeguk Warriors a deserved win.
Their cousins from north of the 38th Parallel were much less impressive 24 hours later as North Korea drew 0-0 with UAE. Hong Yong Jo smacked an early penalty against the crossbar but after that the 2010 World Cup qualifiers rarely looked like scoring. UAE had the better chances but still didn't do enough in a poor advert for Asian football.
Fortunately, Iran and defending champions Iraq gave a much better showing shortly after in a vibrant clash that finished 2-1 in favour of the Persians. Younis Mahmoud rekindled memories of his 2007 heroics by putting Iraq ahead after just 12 minutes. It took Iran time to settle but just before the break, Gholamreza Rezaei equalized and then gave the Iranian fans a further treat with his walk away celebration full of Cantona-like insouciance. That was not the case as Iman Mobali's free-kick evaded everyone in the Iraqi defence and bounced into the net to remind Iraq that 2007 is ancient history as far as football is concerned.