Three and easy for Park
If Friday night was anything to go by Park Chu-young's goal celebration could become a familiar sight for Arsenal fans. Three times on Friday, match day one of the third round of Asian qualification for the 2014 World Cup, during South Korea's 6-0 thrashing of Lebanon the hands were quickly clasped together as the player then sank piously to his knees.
After his first, a volley, his headed second or a third that flew off his right boot, the deeply religious Park could have been forgiven for lifting up his red shirt to reveal a scrawled message meant, not for God or Jesus, but for ESPNsoccernet.
"Never an instinctive goalpoacher, his finishing has improved but still could be better," went my article about Park posted earlier in the week. It looked pretty good as Park ran rings aroung writers and defenders alike to help himself to an impressive hat-trick as the West Asians were put to the sword roared on by a capacity crowd in Goyang. Park's goals and all-round play more than hinted that, after a summer of relative inactivity, he is in form and glowing with happiness and menace.
That wasn't the only story on a day in which 20 teams were in action all over the continent trying to get the first points on the board that will help towards a top two-finish in their groups and a place in the final round. The South Korean demolition was expected, to an extent, but the struggles of other continental big boys to get three points on the board early doors were not.
Just take a look at Australia. Former Korea coach Pim Verbeek took the Socceroos to the 2010 World Cup with so much room to spare that it became filled with journalists and fans questioning his style. New boss Holger Osieck was supposed to have kept the 'fun' from 'functional' and discarded the rest.
Football isn't always so simple and at half-time in a home opener against Thailand, the Socceroos, leaden-footed and unimaginative, were a goal down thanks to Teerasil Dangda. The Elephants, missing a few of their first-choice players, were threatening a major upset that was only averted by a second half equalizer from Josh Kennedy and a late winner from Alex Brosque. It was, said Osieck, a wake-up call. A much tougher test waits in the Saudi Arabian city of Dammam on Tuesday, a real football region of the country that provides visitors with the most intimidating atmosphere in the Middle East.
China, desperate not to make it three failures in a row at this stage of qualification, decided to host Singapore in their least welcoming venue. The city of Kunming is almost 2,000 metres above sea level but it was the hosts who looked out of sorts in their first game under new boss Jose Antonio Camacho. The former Spain and Real Madrid coach has been struggling to find translators who can switch from Chinese to Spanish while knowing the ins and outs of football. On the evidence of Friday, just finding football players familiar with the beautiful game looks hard enough.
Alexander Duric may be 41 and playing at altitude but the naturalized Singapore striker knows where the goal is and put the Lions ahead in the first half. China came roaring back in the second and eventually equalized with their second penalty converted by Zheng Zhi. The protests of Singapore coach Radojko Avramovic earned the former Notts County goalkeeper a red card but he still managed to get his hands on a mobile phone before having to climb even higher up into the mountain air to watch the hosts win 2-1. China will now be happy with a draw in Jordan.
Japan also left it late before winning 1-0 but at least Asia's number one team had the excuse of hosting North Korea, a team that can frustrate the best around. The game started and ended with a familiar sight - Jong Tae Se in tears. First 'The People's Rooney' blubbed during the national anthem and then he did the same following Maya Yoshida's 94th minute winner. It was déjà vu for DPRK as Masashi Oguru did exactly the same when the two teams met in the same Saitama Stadium during qualification for the 2006 World Cup.
The first part of the night didn't belong entirely to Park Chu-young. An old Asian veteran goalgetter who goes by the name of Maksim Shatskikh showed that he can still find the net. His goal gave Uzbekistan a 1-0 win in Tajikistan in this Central Asian clash. It was a 34th international goal for the 33 year-old, not bad for a striker often accused of putting club before country.
Despite the tussles, the first games of the day had all gone pretty much how everyone would have predicted. Attention then turned to the western half of the continent and especially in the direction of Frank Rijkaard, Carlos Queiroz and Zico.
Zico has been in the Middle East for not much more than a week but was unable to prevent Iraq falling to a 2-0 home defeat at the hands of Jordan, led by former Iraqi coach Adnan Hamad. The 2007 Asian Champions face a tricky trip to Singapore with the hosts also aware that another defeat would severely dent, if not quite dash, dreams of the final stage. Zico has happy memories of China after leading Japan to the 2004 Asian Cup with a win over the hosts in Beijing but he doesn't want to go to the Middle Kingdom, on matchday three, with no points on the board.
Rijkaard took his Saudi Arabian team to Oman and won't be too upset with a goalless draw while down in Group E, Iran are top after a 3-0 win over Indonesia in Tehran. With all the headlines about Japanese and Korean players going to Europe, Osasuna's Javed Nekounam reminded fans in Tehran that he is still one of the best Asian exports around with a brace to gave Queiroz's men a slightly flattering scoreline against the team likely to finish last.
If Iran are favourites and Indonesia the opposite, then the meeting between Bahrain and Qatar in Riffa had extra weight. With free tickets for Bahrain fans, the match ended goalless with Qatar much the happier of the two. Peter Taylor's Bahrain now travel to Indonesia to the intimidating Gelora Bung Karno Stadium where they lost at the 2007 Asian Cup.
It may be too late for UAE's Srecko Katenec who saw his team lose 3-2 at home to Kuwait when only a couple of late goals added respectability to the scoreline. He was already on thin ice as his 'Kateneccio' style at January's Asian Cup resulted in no goals in three games. There are also reports of serious rifts in the camp. The Slovenian may not make it to Beirut on Tuesday and could be the first, but surely not the last, casualty of the third round.
Kuwait prepare for South Korea and Arsenal's new striker.