ANOTHER international football window is over, allowing fans of the Premier League, La Liga, Bundesliga and Neymar to get back to what they were doing before.
But while many fans around the world view the international breaks as an inconvenience – an untimely interruption to their club football viewing – for others it is a must-watch.
The recent international break saw Japan and South Korea guarantee their places at next year’s World Cup finals in Russia, while Australia were left to settle for a play-off berth.
In the race to qualify for the 2019 Asian Cup in United Arab Emirates, India maintained their 100 percent record in the third round of qualification, while Malaysia and Singapore stuttered, and Vietnam got back on track.
From best to worst, we grade the international window for Asian teams.
Japan – A
Their 1-0 defeat against Saudi Arabia in Jeddah denied Japan an A+ for this window – but they achieved their primary objective: World Cup qualification by winning their group.
That was all that mattered for Samurai Blue, and they booked their place in Russia with a 2-0 win over Australia in the first game of their two-match block.
Goals from Takuma Asano and Yosuke Ideguchi saw off the Socceroos and propelled Japan to a sixth successive World Cup finals appearance.
By the time they arrived in Jeddah, where they had to take cabs to training after their bus failed to show, it was perhaps understandable that Japan were not at their best.
Defeat for Japan, though, was further bad news for Australia. It meant Saudi Arabia took the second automatic spot and knocked the Socceroos into the play-offs.
China – A
So they missed out on qualification for the World Cup – but Marcello Lippi’s China went a long way to restoring their pride with back-to-back wins over Uzbekistan and Qatar.
China had gone into the games with a slim chance of reaching Russia next summer – but they required little short of a miracle to get there.
While other results did not go their way, Lippi’s team stuck to their side of the bargain, ensuring the Italian coach – who inherited a team with one point from four games – guided his team to three wins and two draws from his six games in charge.
“When I took over we had almost no hope of qualifying at all – but we fought until the end and I hope we keep improving so we can have a good result at the Asian Cup,” said Lippi.
Vietnam – A
Vietnam headed to the Olympic Stadium in Phnom Penh trailing Cambodia in Group C of 2019 Asian Cup qualifying – but they produced a smart display to win 2-1.
Nguyen Van Quyet put Vietnam in front, only for Chan Vathanaka to draw level. But Nguyen Quang Hai’s winner nine minutes from the end gave Vietnam their first group win of the campaign and left them well placed ahead of next month’s return fixture in Ho Chi Minh City.
India – A
No one is pretending Macau are an international force, but India could only beat the team in front of them – and they brushed aside Macau 2-0 away from home to maintain a 100 percent record in Group A of 2019 Asian Cup qualifying.
Balwant Singh scored twice as India, who had already beaten Myanmar and Kyrgyzstan in qualifying, took advantage of the postponement of the Kyrgyzstan-Myanmar match to open up a six-point lead at the head of the group.
South Korea – B
In any other context, a pair of 0-0 draws against Iran (home) and Uzbekistan (away) would not be graded as highly as a B. But South Korea’s 0-0 draws saw them stumble over the line and guarantee their place at next summer’s World Cup.
After captain Kim Young-gwon blamed the noise of the crowd for some of his team’s struggles against Iran, there was no improvement in Tashkent five days later – but the Koreans did enough to advance to the finals, with Syria going into the play-offs.
Philippines – B-
A 2-2 home draw with Yemen is, in itself, not a perfect result – but it allowed Philippines to remain unbeaten and on top of Group F in qualification for the 2019 Asian Cup.
Phil Younghusband continued his record of scoring in all of Philippines’ qualifying matches, while brother James struck the equalising goal against Yemen, who are also unbeaten in Group F.
The two sides should go on to qualify for the tournament in UAE.
Thailand – C
Thailand finished bottom of Group B in the third stage of World Cup qualifying – but their two results in the past week showed progress.
Yes, they were beaten in both, but their 2-1 home loss against Iraq was heading for a creditable draw until an 85th-minute penalty denied them.
And then they frustrated Australia for long periods in Melbourne, before eventually losing 2-1. After scoring four goals in their opening eight group games, Thailand scored two in their last two matches, and looked to have nicked a draw with Australia until Mathew Leckie’s 86th-minute goal.
Singapore – C
These are not great times for Singaporean football, with a FIFA world ranking of 171st and the domestic S.League facing many issues.
This was also not a good international window for Singapore, who led Turkeminstan 1-0 at Jalan Besar Stadium before an 82nd-minute goal left them to settle for a 1-1 draw.
As a result, Singapore remain bottom of Group E in the race to qualify for the 2019 Asian Cup – and will need a dramatic improvement if they are to book their place in UAE.
Hong Kong – C
Hong Kong have not qualified for an Asian Cup since 1968, so expectations are never particularly high. Their 1-1 draw away against Malaysia was a decent enough result, although they will no doubt feel they could have taken advantage after going 1-0 in front.
Qualification from Group B for UAE in 2019 looks to be between North Korea, Hong Kong and Malaysia, with Lebanon looking strong to win the group.
North Korea – C
To say there are things more important than football going on in North Korea would be an understatement – but despite the noise their team secured a 2-2 draw with Lebanon in Pyongyang.
A solid C would have been nudged higher had group leaders Lebanon not snatched a point with a goal from Hassan Maatouk in second-half stoppage time.
Cambodia – D
Cambodia were on course for a solid B or C until Vietnam’s late winner in Phnom Penh. Had they held on for a draw, they would have remained above their rivals in the race to reach the 2019 Asian Cup, tucked in behind group leaders Jordan.
Instead, next month’s trip to Ho Chi Minh City has effectively become a must-win game for a side bidding to reach the Asian Cup for the first time since 1972.
Malaysia – D
Malaysia, albeit with a game in hand against North Korea to come, remain bottom of Group B of 2019 Asian Cup qualifying, following a lacklustre 1-1 home draw with Hong Kong.
Brazil-born Sandro put Hong Kong in front, and, although Syazwan Zainon levelled soon after, the result did Malaysia – who had two men sent off in the closing minutes – few favours in the race to reach the finals.
Chinese Taipei – F
Chinese Taipei headed to Bahrain with a respectable one win/one loss record from their opening two Group E games in 2019 Asian Cup qualifying, with Bahrain had one win and one draw.
But the away side were given the runaround by Bahrain, losing 5-0 at the National Stadium in Riffa.
For Chinese Taipei, who had won away at Singapore in their previous game, next month’s return game against Bahrain in Taipei becomes an intriguing test of their mentality.