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Asian Cup: Stony middle eastern road to Australia 2015

Thai National Team
On Tuesday, most of the eyes of Asian football fans were directed to "Down Under". There, in Melbourne, the draw for the preliminary round to the AFC Asian Cup 2015, Asias flagship tournament for national teams, took place. At the same time the official competition logo was revealed (pictured on the right).

It was not all that long ago that Thailand squandered his chances to advance to the last qualifying round of the World Cup 2014, by losing 0-2 to Oman on the very last day of the second qualification round. It happened on the evening of the 28 February this year. Just one year later in February 2013, it will be on Winfried Schafer and his boys to take on the next adventure and hopefully this time the mission can be completed in success.

With twenty teams drawn into five groups, Thailand was drawn into Group B and got handed out a tough one with all opponents coming from the Middle East. The Thai FA will do well to to respect the FIFA calendar 2013 and give Winfired Schafer plenty of opportunities to prepare and to test. 

As everybody knows, the Middle East is anything but a good proving ground for any Thai national football team. Beside the three time Asian Champion Iran, the opponents Thailand is going to face are Kuwait and Lebanon. Attractive lots sound different. Malaysia, Singapore or also Indonesia at least would have added some regional spice to the group (they all were in pot four) and surely one or the other fan certainly could have been found for an away trip.

With no doubt Iran is the favorite to win the group. Anything else would be a surprise and a big upset. Iran currently ranks number four in Asia and is coached by Carlos Queiroz. Here, Thailand definitively has got the hardest lot of all considering that Asias Top-3 nations, Japan, Australia and South Korea enter the final tournament directly. Both sides have met already during the qualifying round to the Asian Cup 2011. After separating goalless in Bangkok, Thailand lost by one to nill in Theran.

Kuwait can be seen as the moderate lot. The Kuwaitis have won the Championship once (1980) and finished third (1984) and are currently under the helm of Serbian Goran Tufegdžić. To discover the last encounter between Thailand and Kuwait we have to digg deep in the archives. It was in  January 2001 and the Thais eventually could beat Kuwait 5-4 in a friendly after trailing 1-4. Bangkok FC's current coach and Thai legend Kiatisuk "Zico" Senamuang scored a hat-trick with Aston Villa legend Peter Withe being in charge that time.

With Lebanon, who even ranks one place above Kuwait in Asia, Thailand pulled the toughest one to get from pot four. However, except in 2000 as host, Lebanon have never qualified for the final tournament and all records are in favor for Thailand with never having lost a game against his coming opponent. The last time both sides have met was in 2009 in Phuket (2-1). Record international and captain of the team is Roda Antar, well known from the Bundesliga. Between 2001 and 2009 he played for Hamburg SV, SC Freiburg and Cologne. The man on the touchline is the 64 year-old German Theo Bucker who played for Dortmund, Schalke and MSV Duisburg during his active career.

The two best placed teams of each group qualifies for Australia 2015, with the best ranked third team of all groups joining them. Therefore it will be essential for Thailand to beat Lebanon twice and at least to beat Kuwait at home and take three points. Because since from the past Thailand at a maximum is able to come away with a draw. But record as everybody knows, at least in football, are there to break.

The home match against Kuwait on 6 February 2013 will mark the prelude for Winnies Eleven and we welcome Iran some month later, on 15 November. The ties against Lebanon, on 5 and 22 March 2014 are to mark the end of the qualifying campaign. The latter encounter, especially as Thailand will have to travel, reminds a bit of the meeting against Oman. I can tell which way the wind is blowing?
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