Football: Beware the rising force of Asia

Oman coach Paul le Guen at his team's first training session in Singapore, ahead of Wednesday's Asian Cup qualifier at the Jalan Besar Stadium.

SINGAPORE - They have never qualified for the World Cup, never made it past the first round of the Asian Cup, and are ranked 95th in the Fifa rankings - above New Caledonia and Cuba.

Oman may not exactly be the who's who of Asian football, but their high-profile coach, Paul Le Guen, is the first person to tell you his team should be feared by all in the region.

Speaking to The New Paper on Saturday, ahead of their Group A Asian Cup qualifier against Singapore at the Jalan Besar Stadium on Wednesday, Le Guen referred to his team as a rising force in Asian football.

The Frenchman cited his team's recent World Cup qualifying campaign to substantiate his claim. Oman, in the shadows of Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia for the past few decades, narrowly missed out on Brazil 2014 after they lost 1-0 away to Jordan in their final fourth-round group match in June.

The defeat dropped Le Guen's charges to fourth in the group, eliminating them from a fifth-round play-off spot against Uzbekistan next month.

But before falling at the final hurdle, Oman raised eyebrows around the football world with their results against Australia, Saudi Arabia and Iraq - all traditional regional powerhouses.

"In four matches against Australia (third and fourth round), we beat them once, drew twice, and lost once," said Le Guen, who coached Cameroon in the 2010 World Cup.

"Many expected us to falter in the third round, where we were grouped with Australia, Saudi (Arabia) and Thailand. "But we did not lose to the Saudis (drew twice), and finished second to make it to the fourth round."

In the fourth round, Oman also defeated (1-0) and drew (1-1) with Iraq - a team which thumped Singapore 7-1 in the previous phase.

Le Guen added that he "accepted" the decisive defeat by Jordan, and that he was proud of his team's achievement.

Indeed, the 47-year-old, who led Olympique Lyon to three consecutive Ligue 1 championships in 2002-2005, before spells with Glasgow Rangers and Paris Saint- Germain, has earned the plaudits of many back in Oman, a country of four million people.

Despite not having a professional league, Oman had achieved their best showing in World Cup qualification over the last 40 years.

Le Guen took over the reins in June 2011 from another Frenchman, Claude Le Roy - who had led the Omanis to Gulf Cup success on their home soil in 2009. Prior to that, Oman's only notable feats were two Asian Cup appearances, in 2004 and 2007.

Reaching the world stage was Le Guen's dream when he arrived in Muscat. The mission now is to qualify for the Asian Cup 2015 in Australia.

"It won't be easy, because our group (also featuring Jordan and Syria) is difficult," Le Guen said.

"I will always be realistic when asked about my team's chances. But I believe we are good enough to qualify."

The Frenchman has placed his faith in youth.

Against the 162nd-ranked Singapore, Oman's 21-man squad has an average age of just 23.

They do not include the likes of Wigan Athletic goalkeeper Ali Al-Habsi, vicecaptain Ahmad Mubarak and experienced forward Emad Al-Hosni, who scored the winner in the 1-0 victory over Australia in November 2011.

In fact, only two players - Ismail Al- Ajmi and Abdul Salam Al-Mukhaini - ply their trade outside of Oman, in Saudi Arabia and UAE respectively.

"It is not a reflection of inexperience," Le Guen assured, when asked of his squad's lack of overseas experience.

"These players are the same ones who played in the World Cup qualifying. They are the same who beat Syria 1-0 in the opening game of the Asian Cup (qualifiers).

"Like I have said before, if we stay focused against Singapore, I am confident of winning."

aakasim@sph.com.sg


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