Syria gear up for Cup after coach change
Syria are counting on a stop-gap coach for their Asian Cup campaign after the job changed hands three times in three months, but the new man in charge is determined to help the Eagles soar in time.
"We have a short period but this is not a problem," Valeriu Tita told media in mid-December when he was named Syria's coach just three weeks before they kick off their Group B battles against Japan, Saudi Arabia and Jordan.
The 44-year-old Romanian, on loan from Syrian club Ittihad, insisted that a few warm-up friendlies would be enough to put the "final touches" on the national squad before their fifth Asian Cup finals, but first since 1996. Tita replaced Serbian Ratomir Dujkovic after guiding his Aleppo side to win a penalty shootout against Kuwait's Al Qadsia in the final of the AFC Cup, Asia's second-tier club competition, in early November.
Syria Football Association president Farouk Sirriya sacked Dujkovic for failing to return from a vacation at an agreed time ahead of a friendly against Asian Cup holders Iraq away on 18 December. A tactician credited for guiding Ghana to the last-16 at the 2006 FIFA World Cup™, Dujkovic reportedly revolted against the Syrian FA's decision not to allow him to bring his own coaching staff.
Syria nevertheless took the match 1-0 without him but then lost 1-0 to the same Gulf side four days later at home with Tita in charge for the first time. Tita may rely on Al-Karamah striker Mohamed Al Zeno, who has scored 14 goals in 36 matches for Syria since 2004, and Sanharib Malki Sabah, a frontman with the Belgian side Lokeren, for goals. Ali Diab, 28, who joined China's first division Shanghai Shenhua in 2010, can beef up Syria's defence with his aerial strength.
Sirriya, the FA chief, admitted it would be a daunting task for the Eagles to reach the Asian Cup knockout stage for the first time. In their Cup debut in 1980, they missed a last-eight berth by one point.
"The 2011 Asian Cup could be the toughest edition for Syria," he told the AFC website, adding that their clash with Japan "could be our toughest assignment because of their experience in the World Cup."
Japan, three-time Asian Cup champions, as are Saudi Arabia and Iran, reached the last-16 in South Africa in June for their best-ever FIFA World Cup result on foreign soil. He also described fellow West Asians Saudi Arabia and Jordan as "a force to be reckoned with in the group."
"So, we are not going to leave anything to chance and will do everything to emerge from the group unscathed and ready for the next stages."
The revolving door of coaches started after Syria qualified for the 2011 Asian Cup under homegrown Fajr Ibrahim. They won four matches and drew twice - including a 3-2 win over second-placed China - as the only country to remain unbeaten in any group. But Ibrahim was fired after his squad lost two straight friendlies to Kuwait and Yemen in September.
Syria then had mixed results under caretaker coach Ayman Hackeem before Dujkovic replaced him. The Serb took charge of only one match when Syria dominated Bahrain 2-0 in a mid-November friendly with solid midfield pressure and an improved defence.