Oman have made a slow start in the third round of qualifying for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™, opening up with a goalless draw at home to Saudi Arabia and then going down 3-0 in Thailand, one of the biggest shocks of the Asian qualifiers so far.
Rooted to the bottom of Group D with a solitary point, the Omanis now face a vital double-header against pool-topping Australia, their first meeting coming in Sydney next Tuesday and the return fixture on home soil on 11 November.
Points from those games are essential if the Reds are to stay in contention for a top-two finish and a place in the next round, a view confirmed by their captain, Fouzi Bashir, when he spoke to FIFA.com about their dual assignment against the formidable Socceroos.
As far as the 27-year-old midfielder is concerned, there is one very good reason why Paul Le Guen’s side are some way off the pace in Group D. “We haven’t had enough time to prepare for games and the match schedule has worked against us,” he explained. “We’ve got several squad members who play overseas and they weren’t ready at the start of the qualifiers because their leagues hadn’t got under way.”
The Omanis have much to do after that surprise defeat to the Thais, one that left the skipper scratching his head. “We were very disappointed at the performance we put in,” he said. “It was a heavy loss for us, though it’s no reflection on the level of the team, which has been making steady progress in the last few years.”
With the Australians up next, Bashir and Co can afford no such repeat of that display, and will be drawing on their recent experiences against the Antipodeans as they look to kick-start their challenge.
“It’s not the first time we’ve faced Australia,” he said, in reference to their recent meetings, which include a 1-1 draw at the 2007 AFC Asian Cup and two narrow defeats in the qualifying competition for the 2011 continental finals. “Our top guys have a lot of experience playing them, and this will be the fourth time we’ve faced them. In fact, we didn’t do too badly at all in the two Asian Cup qualifiers last year.
“They rely a lot on their Europe-based players,” he continued, giving his view on the Aussies. “They base their game on set-pieces and long balls, and counter-attacking is their strongest suit. That’s how they score most of their goals.”
Virtues such as those brought the Australians 1-0 and 2-1 victories over the Omanis in those 2011 Asian Cup qualifiers, leaving Bashir to wish for better luck this time: “Those two games more or less decided our fate in the qualifiers, and I hope luck will be on our side this time against very tough opponents.
“Australia are one of the leading sides in Asia, as they’ve shown in these qualifiers, and they also played at the last World Cup,” he added. “We are well aware of what we’re up against, having faced them three times recently. Fate’s thrown us together again, but on the bright side we do have the advantage of knowing them inside out.”
Oman 'needs professional league'
Though the Omanis face an uphill battle, their skipper is ready for the challenge: “We didn’t have much luck in the draw, finding ourselves in the hardest group alongside Australia and Saudi Arabia. But that shouldn’t stop us from fighting all the way and keeping our qualification hopes alive.”
The Reds have struggled since winning the 2009 Gulf Cup, coming up well short on their defence of the title in Yemen last year, having earlier failed to reach the 2011 Asian Cup finals, disappointments Bashir puts down to the lack of a professional league structure in Oman.
“The Omani league is amateur and there are 14 players in the national team who play abroad, which perhaps explains why we haven’t been doing so well,” commented Bashir, who runs out for UAE club Bani Yas. “I hope this tough patch we’ve been going through is just a dip and that we can start our recovery against Australia.”
With his experience of league football in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait and UAE, Bashir is well qualified to suggest the way forward for Omani football, irrespective of what happens in Sydney next Tuesday: “My hope is to see my country play a leading role in Asia. If we’re going to achieve that, though, we need a strong championship that’s exclusively professional.”