Oman optimistic of building on shock success

  • Oman pulled off a historic win over Japan in the Asian qualifiers for Qatar 2022

  • Their coach, Branko Ivankovic, paid tribute to his players

  • Former Oman stalwart Ali Al Habsi praised the performance of both the team and his goalkeeping successor, Fayez Al Rushaidi

“We’re hopeful we can be the dark horses of this campaign,” said Oman coach Branko Ivankovic to FIFA.com in an interview prior to the final round of Asian qualifying matches for the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022™. Those words now have a distinctly prophetic air about them.

The Croatian coach was the architect of a remarkable upset on the first matchday of the third round of AFC qualifiers on Thursday, with his resilient Omani side defeating Japan 1-0 in Osaka. In doing so, they proved Ivankovic right when he said they would be “tricky and dangerous opponents for all of the teams involved” in Group B, which also features Australia, Saudi Arabia, China and Vietnam.

The Omanis put in a formidable performance at Suita City Stadium, threatening the Japanese goal on a number of occasions. Goalkeeper Fayez Al Rushaidi kept a well-deserved clean sheet, while substitute Issam Al Sobhi guided home a memorable winning goal in the 88th minute, just four minutes after coming off the bench.

“It’s a great feeling to come on as a substitute and stick away the winner,” said the delighted goalscorer. “From the moment I stepped out onto the pitch, I was fully focused, and so happy to be able to help my team.”

For his part, Ivankovic praised the commitment shown by his players throughout the contest: “Our team demonstrated tactical discipline, which reduced the threat posed by Japan,” he said. “The Japanese surprised us with their high pressing, but we managed to create dangerous chances and pick up the win.”

Breakthrough success

The victory over Japan was vital for the Reds, who had not triumphed in any of their eight previous qualifying clashes with the three-time Asian champions, who have appeared at the last six World Cups.

“It’s an important and historic win for Oman, whose discipline and tactics were spot-on against Japan,” former national-team talisman Ali Al Habsi, who played against the Samurai Blue six times in World Cup qualifiers, told FIFA.com. “It’s crucial because it was our opening match of the final round, and it was away from home, which will give the team a big morale boost for the rest of the campaign.”

The ex-goalkeeper also praised the impressive performance of his successor between the sticks, Fayez Al Rushaidi, who established himself as Oman’s first-choice shot-stopper following Al Habsi’s international retirement at the beginning of last year. He was keen to point out that the 33-year-old’s confidence and experience played a key role in the unexpected victory over Japan.

“Fayez got his chance and today he showed how valuable he is,” said Al Habsi, who played his club football in Oman, Norway, England and Saudi Arabia. “He’s the captain of the team and all his team-mates trust him. He put in a top-notch display against Japan. His saves were a major factor in the win.”

Another tough test awaits Oman on Tuesday, when they lock horns with Saudi Arabia in Muscat, in what will be only the third meeting between the two sides in World Cup qualifiers. Their two previous encounters, which took place during the qualifying campaign for Brazil 2014, ended in 0-0 draws.

“We may be looking at something similar this time, because matches between Gulf countries are always tight affairs,” said Al Habsi. “Both teams are coming into this match on the back of opening-day wins. Collecting three points again on Tuesday could be critically important. It’ll be a difficult game, but we’ve got confidence in the players and their ability to continue giving 100 per cent in every qualifier. They’ll have our full support till the end.”