Preview: 2014 AFC Challenge Cup
As you probably already know, AFC, the Asian Football Confederation, organizes Asia Cup, whose next Edition will be in January 2015 in Australia. But the ways to qualify to this Competition are a bit different from the ones we are used in Europe: the host Country, and the teams finishing first, second (that in this case is the host) and third in the previous Edition receive an automatic bye to the Final Stage, while 20 others National Teams (NTs) were divided in 5 Groups of 4 each to play for 11 Final Stage berths.
Anyway the supposedly weakest Federations didn’t take part in those Qualifiers: they’re reserved two berths which go to winner of the last two Editions (2012 and 2014) of AFC Challenge Cup, a Competition contested by these “weaker” NTs.
2012 Edition was held in Nepal and was won by North Korea (that in the future won’t be allowed to play in this Competion again, because it’s much stronger than the opponents), while 2014 Edition will begin at the end of May in Maldives.
Before previewing the Final Stage, you have to know that you have to qualify also to play AFC Challenge Cup: these Qualifiers were a bit affected by the withdrawal of Brunei, that distorted a bit the ranking of second-placed teams, and India was the main “victim” in this Round.
If you wanted to have an idea about the level of this Competition, you should consider that an average AFC Challenge Cup would probably be defeated with a 2/3/4-goal gap by a decent/good Asian team, such as Iran and Saudia Arabia, that would probably be defeated (we don’t include Japan and South Korea) with a 2/3/4-goal by a strong European/South American NT.
If you consider that in 2014 AFC Challenge Cup Qualifiers certain NTs (i.e. Northern Mariana Islands, Guam e Cambodia) were defeated with a 4/5/6/7-goal gap, you can imagine how they would perform against Brazil, Spain or Germany.
Analyzing the Final Stage, the two Groups are pretty unbalanced: Group B looks much stronger, because there are three teams (Turkmenistan, Philippines and Afghanistan) that in our opinion could all potentially win the Title, but just two will qualify fot Semi-finals, while we don’t give Laos any chance to reach the last four.
Group A looks much weaker, and maybe just Palestine could win this Competition, while Kyrgyzstan, Myammar, a growing NT, and Maldives should have quite equal chances to end second and qualify for Semi-finals, but we don’t think they will be able to win the Cup.
The reason of this imbalance probably is that Maldives, a relatively decent NT, but surely not the best of the Competition, being the host, were seeded in the draw , and that affected the balance of the two Groups.
This National Team (NT) host the Competition, so will play at his usual home venue, Galolhu National Stadium (capacity: 13.000), a fact that could help them.
The large majority of players comes from two local Clubs, New Radiant SC and Maziya S&RC, that participated both in 2014 AFC Cup Group Stage (Asian Europa League), but they both ended their Group on the bottom (they has collected together 4 points in 12 matches).
The star of the team is doubtless the Captain, the 28-year-old striker Ali Ashfaq, the only element who plays abroad (PDRM FA, Malaysian Premier League, second tier): he has always has very high goal scoring averages both in Maldives and abroad.
Palestinian National Team, after a short existance during ’30, when it was formed only by Jewish players, was born again, despite the controversial status of the land that it represents, in 1998, but has often had to face bureaucratic issues because of the troubled situation in Middle East.
Palestinians should be able to access the Semi-finals without big problems, and could have few chances to win the Competition.
The most experienced players should be the goalkeeper Ramzi Saleh (33, Masr El Makasa, Egyptian Premier League ), the midfielder Imad Zatara (29, Advitabergs FF), who is a regular starter in Swedish top tier, and the defender Omar Jarun (30, Ottawa Fury FC), who has played in USA, Belgium and Poland.
Few quite important elements won’t be in the Maldives, such as the midfielder Alì Khatib (25, Hapoel Acre FC, Israelian top tier), Alexis Norambuena (30, GKS Belchatow, Polish top tier) and Daniel Mustafà (29, CD San Marcos, Chilean top tier), the last two of them were born in Chile, where there’s an important Palestinian settlement, that has given so far few players to this NT.
This National Team could reach Semi-finals, but probably won’t be able to win this Competition.
The best players should be the defender Valeri Kichin (21, FK Ufa), a regular starter in Russian second tier, the midfielders Claude Maka Kum (28, Cameroonian born, Kyrgyz naturalized, he has played in Moldovan and Lithuanian top tiers), Anatoliy Vlasichev (25, FC Okzhetpes, Kazakh top tier), Vadim Kharchenko (29, Tavşanlı Linyitspor, Turkish second tier), Akhlidin Israilov (19, Dynamo-2 Kyiv, Ukrainian second tier) and the Ghanian born striker David Tetteh (28, Dordoi Bishkek, Kyrgyz first tier), who has scored all the 3 goals that have given Kyrgyzstan three 1-0 wins with whom they qualified.
Like Khirghizstan and Maldives, they could reach Semi-final (they got two fourth places in the past), but probably have no chance to clinch the Title and play Asian Cup.
All the players play in the local Championship, that is on a relatively decent level, maybe because there are several foreign players: in 2014 AFC Cup, basically the Asian Europa League, the two Club from Myanmar survived both the Group Stage and qualified for Knockout Stage of a Competiton played by teams from Countries whose NTs are supposedly stronger than Myanmar ove vi sono squadre provenienti da Paesi la cui Nazionale è teoricamente più competitiva.
We don’t know a lot about these footballers, so we try to point you out two players from Yangoon United, Khin Maung Lwin (25, defender) and Ya Zar Win Thein (26, a midfielder that can score several goals), and two from, Zaw Min Tun (21, defender) and Yan Paing (30, forward, team Captain and top scorer).
Turkmenistan is surely one of the favorites, or the favorite, to win the Title: the reached the Final in the last two Editions of the Competition (2010 and 2012), but were defeated by North Korea in both of the times: anyway Korea DPR had already qualified for 2015 Asian Cup after winning 2012 Challenge Cup, so it won’t play this Edition.
Turkmenistan is a quite mysterious NT, that likes hidding its cards playing very few friendlies: anyway in the Qualifying Stage it had already faced Philipines, losing 1-0, but both of the teams were already qualified because of Brunei’s withdrawal.
All the footballers play in the local Campionship, except the strongest one, the 22-year-old winger, that can score several goals, Ruslan Mingazow, a key element of Skonto FC (Latvia), while the top scorer should be the striker Aleksander Boliyan (24, Şagadam Türkmenbaşy, Turkmen top tier).
Few quite important players won’t be in Maldives, such as the winger Vyacheslav Krendelew (31, Luch-Energia Vladivostok, Russian second tier) and strikers Arslanmyrat Amanow (24, Irtysh Pavlodar, Kazak top tier), Artur Gevorkyan (29, Nasaf Qarshi, Uzbek top tier), Vahyt Orazsahedov (22, FC Dacia Chișinău, Moldovan top tier) and Berdimyrat Şamyradow (31, Altyn Asyr FK, Turkmen top tier).
This National Team is very interesting and can field few of the best footballers in this Competition, that play in quite good European Championships.
If you read the players’ names in the squad, you could be surprised by the fact that they sound like Spanish, Dutch, English and German: that’s because the Country was a colony in the past and because and because several players were born and raised abroad but have Filipino mothers or grandmothers.
The star, probably the best player in this Competition, is Stephan Schröck (27, Eintracht Frankfurt, but he will move to Hoffenheim next season), a striker that plays in German Bundesliga.
Philippines can field two relatively good goalkeepers: Roland Müller (26, regular starter for Servette FC, Swiss second tier) and Neil Etheridge (24, third choice at Fulham FC), while in the defence we can find the expert Juan Luis Guirado (34, Burgos, Spanish third tier) and Dennis Cagara (29, regular starter for Lyngby, Danish second tier, but next season he’ll move to Karlsruher SC, German second tier).
In the midfield we can find Paul Mulders (33, SC Cambuur, Dutch second tier), Jerry Lucena (33, Esbjerg IF, Danish first tier), Martin Steuble (FC Wil 1900, Swiss second tier) and Mark Hartmann (22, Global FC, he has scored 22 goals and 10 assists in 19 matches in Filipino first tier), while on the front we’d like to see Phil Younghusband (26, Loyola Meralco Sparks, Filipino first tier), who has a very high goal scoring average both in NT and in the local Championship.
The main issue for Philippines could be the fact that local Championship looks weaker than the one of other Countries that play this Tournament; moreover the footballers who plays in Europe live very far away away from Philippines, and come back to the far East just to play the most important matches and not the friendlies, that often aren’t included in the International Calendar (the Clubs aren’t obliged to leave their players in this circumstance), and that could make difficult to create a strong team spirit in the “Azkals”, the nickname of this NT.
This NT is growing quite well and is showing interesting things: it will be a very hard opponent for Philipines and Turkmenistan.
The majority of the footballers (8) plays in German lower division, no one above the fourth, several players being migrants or migrants’ sons, in Afghan (6) and Indian (4) Championships.
The most important elements should be: the goalkeeper Mansur Faqiryar (28, VfB Oldenburg, German fourth tier), defenders Faisal Sakhizada (23, Dandenong Thunder SC, Australian second tier), Hassan Amin (Eintracht Frankfurt II, German fourth tier) and Zohib Islam Amiri (Dempo SC, Indian Premier League), the midfielder Faysal Shayesteh (22, Songkhla United, Thai Premier League, he has played in Bulgarian top tier) and forwards Hashmatullah Barakzai (Mumbai FC, Indian Premier League) and, most of all, Balal Arezou (Asker Fotboll, Norwegian third tier).
But Afghan NT could become stronger if three players, that hold dual citizenship, decided to play for Afghanistan: Mostagh Yaghoubi (18, FC Dynamo Moskva II offensive midfielder, currently he’s a Finnish Under 21 International), Mustafa Amini (21, Borussia Dortmund II midfielder, but he has stated that he’d prefer representing Australia) and Sharif Mukhammad (24, Anzhi Makhachkala midfielder).
This squad is quite unknown: they qualified thanks to Brunei withdrawal, that affected the ranking to determine the secon placed teams, but they should have no chance to reach the Semi-finals.
Almost every footballers play in the local Championship or in lower Thailandese divisions: the most decent ones should be the midfielder Soukaphone Vongchiengkham (22, Phitsanulok F.C., Thai Division 1 League, second tier) and forward Khampheng Sayavutthi (27, Ang Thong FC, Thai Division 1 League, second tier).
There could be a very good player as well: the French-born offensive midfielder, whose family is clearly Laotian, Billy Ketkeophomphone (24, Tours FC), who has scored 10 goals in 33 matches in current French Ligue 2, but he won’t play in this Competition.