Head coaches set for battle of wills
Kuala Lumpur: From wily veterans to willing novices, the men charged with leading the 40 nations seeking to advance to the next phase of qualifying for the the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 and the AFC Asian Cup China 2023 will be putting the finishing touches to the preparations as the countdown to kick off the second round of the Asian Qualifiers ticks ever louder.
The range in know-how between those taking part is vast, and no one brings more experience to the campaign than Marcello Lippi, the man who led Italy to their fourth world title in 2006 and who is charged with ending China PR’s lengthy FIFA World Cup drought.
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Lippi, of course, has been here before. The 71-year-old was appointed China coach in November 2016, two games into the final phase of qualifying for Russia 2018 and immediately sparked an upturn in the team’s fortunes before narrowly missing out on qualification.
The former Juventus head coach will be looking to build on that showing as he leads his team through Group A, which also features a Syria side led by the experienced Fajr Ibrahim, Philippines who will be led by Goran Milojevic and Scott Cooper, the Maldives with Germany’s Petar Segrt at the helm and a Guam team coached by Australian Karl Dodd.
At the other end of the spectrum from Lippi is Afghanistan’s Anoush Dastgir (pictured above). At just 29 years of age, he is the youngest coach to be working in the Asian Qualifiers, having replaced the well-travelled Otto Pfister midway through last year.
Dastgir faces a major challenge in an evenly matched Group E, where his team meet Felix Sanchez’s AFC Asian Cup champions Qatar as well as an India side under new head coach Igor Stimac, Erwin Koeman’s Oman and a Bangladesh side coached by Englishman Jamie Day.
In the space between the extremes of Lippi and Dastgir lies an abundance of coaching talent.
Bert van Marwijk (pictured below) returns for another qualifying campaign, almost a decade after leading his native Netherlands to the final of the FIFA World Cup in South Africa.
He takes charge of the United Arab Emirates as they seek to book a ticket for their first Finals since 1990 and take on Park Hang-seo’s Vietnam, a Thai side led by Akira Nishino, who took Japan to the Round of 16 in Russia last year, as well as Simon McMenemy’s Indonesia and Tan Cheng Hoe’s Malaysia.
Paulo Bento will be sizing up a return to the FIFA World Cup, too, having led his native Portugal in Brazil in 2014 and he will feel well equipped as head coach of a talented Korea Republic side that takes on Liviu Ciobotariu’s Lebanon, DPR Korea, Ante Mise’s Turkmenistan and a Sri Lanka side led by Nizam Pakeer Ali in Group H.
Korea Republic will be seeking a 10th consecutive appearance in the FIFA World Cup, having enjoyed a fairytale run to the semi-finals of the 2002 edition which they co-hosted with Japan.
Herve Renard (pictured below), who tasted success with Zambia and Ivory Coast when he won the 2012 and 2015 African Cup of Nations, shifts his attention to Asia having taken the reins in Saudi Arabia and where he will lock horns with Uzbekistan’s Hector Cuper.
The pair last faced off in the quarter-finals of the 2017 African Cup of Nations in Gabon, when Cuper’s Egypt handed Renard’s Morocco a 1-0 defeat to advance to the last four. The Frenchman will no doubt be looking to avenge that loss when their new teams meet in November and June next year.
Saudi Arabia and Uzbekistan have been drawn in Group D and will also play Palestine, Yemen and Singapore.
Marc Wilmots, meanwhile, has been asked to fill Carlos Queiroz’s enormous shoes as head coach of Islamic Republic of Iran, with the Belgian charged with maintaining a run that saw the country qualify for each of the last two FIFA World Cup Finals.
The Iranians will be favourites to progress from Group C, with Iraq as potential challengers while Bahrain have undergone a coaching change following the departure of Miroslav Soukup, who has been replaced by Helio Sousa.
Mixu Paatelainen will seek to shake things up with Hong Kong and Keisuke Honda’s learning curve as Cambodia coach – alongside Felix Dalmas – will no doubt continue to fascinate as the former Japan international increasingly shifts his focus to life on the sidelines.
Graham Arnold (pictured above) remains in charge for former AFC Asian Cup champions Australia after their quarter-final exit at the 2019 Continental championship and he will be looking to outwit Vital Borkelmans, who steered Jordan to victory over the Socceroos in the group phase in the UAE in January.
Belgian Borkelmans recently extended his contract with the Jordanians and he will be keen to ensure he builds on the fine work done earlier this year in Group B, where Australia and Jordan also meet a Kuwait side coached by Romeo Jozak, Louis Lancaster’s Chinese Taipei and Nepal, now led by Sweden’s Johan Kalin.
And finally, Hajime Moriyasu will attempt to extend Japan’s run of consecutive FIFA World Cup qualifications to seven as he leads the Samurai Blue into Group F while also juggling the demands of coaching the country’s team at next year’s Tokyo Olympic Games.
He will butt heads with Aleksander Krestinin, the talented Russian coach who impressed with Kyrgyz Republic at the AFC Asian Cup UAE 2019, a Tajikistan side led by Usmon Toshev as well as German veteran Michael Weiss in Mongolia and ex-Lebanon coach Miodrag Radulovic, the current coach of Myanmar.
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