Asian Cup puzzle almost complete

Some rides are more interesting than others and that was surely the case with qualification for the 2015 AFC Asian Cup.

They say that a trip is as much about the journey as the destination itself. With modern aviation that doesn-t really hold true, instead of spending six weeks at sea, Ashes cricketers arrive in 24 hours even if some famous old cricketers drank enough beer en route to sink a small cruise liner. And it was never true about major international football tournament either. It really is all about just getting there.

Even so, some rides are more interesting than others and that was surely the case with qualification for the 2015 AFC Asian Cup. Many issues were settled with plenty of time to go but it still managed to end in the most dramatic of fashions.

Thank China for that, with nods - the first congratulatory, the second sympathetic and the third slightly worried - to Iraq, Lebanon and Thailand. Going into the final round of games, the team from the Middle Kingdom had a foot and a half firmly on Aussie soil. The team was second in its group and needed just a draw at the neutral Iraqi ‘home- of Sharjah in the UAE, to seal a spot. Even defeat was no definite disaster thanks to the Asian Cup spot available to the best-third place qualifier. If China lost to the 2007 champions, it still had a goal difference advantage over nearest challenger Lebanon of six goals.

That-s quite a cushion but simultaneous kick-offs and early goals can do strange things as the night took on a momentum all of its own and threatened to sweep China away. The East Asians were two down and soon after so was Lebanon and in terms of comfort, that six goal cushion had gone from the plumpest of five-star hotel pillows to those tiny white things provided on aircrafts.

Although Thailand pulled a goal back, early in the second half it got a whole lot worse as Iraq scored again and Lebanon raced to a 5-1 lead. China was heading out and now needed a two-goal swing of its own. Fans on social media were full of resignation and rage; it was a shock if not a surprise. They had seen it all before. In qualification for the 2006 World Cup China exited on goals scored despite winning the final game against Hong Kong 7-0. Kuwait scored five in the last 20 minutes against Malaysia to win 6-1 and top the group by the narrowest of margins.

But thanks to a penalty converted by Zhang Xizhe and a Thailand goal, China was back in the Asian Cup by the narrowest of margins. The world-s most populous country made it to the biggest tournament in the world-s biggest continent. Thoughts should be spared for Lebanon, a much-improved team but it is hard to imagine an Asian Cup without China.

Unfortunately, it is getting all too easy to envisage a tournament without Southeast Asian representation as for the second successive tournament, no team from the region qualified through the regular route. Malaysia came pretty close and its impressive 2-1 win in Yemen was all the better for having no permanent coach and being down to ten men for all but 80 minutes of a tough away trip. A point more and the Tigers would have finished level with China in that race for the best third place.

Yet Malaysia-s regional rivals can-t have anything like the same pride. Thailand, impressive at times in qualification for the 2014 World Cup, was woeful - that home loss to Lebanon in the final game summing up a disastrous campaign. Indonesia also failed to win a game, though that was more expected. Malaysia-s seven points equaled the haul of ASEAN-s other four teams together.

There is still hope though most of that lies with the Philippines. The Azkals are the region-s highest ranked team, according to FIFA, and take part in the AFC Challenge Cup in May. The winner of that eight-team tournament reserved for Asia-s ‘developing nations- takes the 16th spot down under. Laos and Myanmar are very much outsiders.

If the Philippines don-t make it, then host Maldives or Afghanistan have a good chance of doing so and will at least give South Asia a horse in next January-s race. Afghanistan is regional champion and would give the Asian Cup a romantic story to match any in the world of sport though seven other teams, at the tournament, that also includes Palestine, would beg to differ.

If Palestine do make it, and it would be something of a surprise, it would add another feather to West Asia-s cap, in fact it would give the region ten out of 16 spots. The region has done very well indeed. Iraq left it late but the UAE, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Iran, Kuwait, Jordan and Bahrain did not. Only Yemen, never likely, Lebanon (three West Asian teams in the group) and Syria missed out.

So the waiting is almost over and 15 out of 16 are making plans for next January. The road to Australia has been an exciting one but there is much, much, more to come.