It may be more than three years until the first ball will be kicked in earnest on Russian soil, but the qualification campaign for the FIFA World Cup 2018 is already underway in the Asian Confederation as the first Preliminary rounds got under way last week.
For Taiwan (Chinese Taipei for the purposes of such games) this meant an opportunity to atone for what was a disappointingly lacklustre showing in the Second Qualification Round for the East Asian Cup, held on home soil in Taipei last November.
The setting moved south this time round with the game taking place in the spectacular World Games Stadium in the southern city of Taiwan. A decent crowd of 6,273 people, including many ex-pats took their seats for what was an unticketed game, surpassing the turnout for either of the three EAFF games held in Taipei and making a strong case for taking more of these games outside the capital.
Despite many empty seats in what is a cavernous arena, the exclusively home crowd whipped up a great atmosphere and expectations were high with Taiwan taking on a team in the bottom ten in the World Rankings.
However Taiwan were without a win in more than two years of competitive matches, and it showed early doors as they passed the ball around with composure but little penetration. Half chances came and went, with Brunei offering little in return short of pumping long balls forward to chase hopefully, and seemingly content to keep things at 0-0 for as long as possible.
But in the 36th minute the unthinkable happened. Brunei attacker Said chased a ball down the right wing and lifted a high hopeful ball into the six yard box. Inexplicably, under limited pressure from the nearby striker Taiwan goalkeeper Chiu Yu-hung fumbled the ball through his fingers and watched in horror as it nestled in the bottom left hand corner of the net.
It was Brunei’s first World Cup goal for more than thirty years and served to silence the partisan crowd, albeit briefly. Normal service was restored before half-time as Taiwan attacked with fluid one touch passing and possession football, without ever really looking like scoring.
Sadly for the loyal home following, the second half was played out in much the same guise. Crosses flew through empty six yard boxes and one-on-one’s were spurned as Taiwan laid siege to the Brunei goal. But the away teams net led a charmed life and on the full time whistle, an honourable standing ovation for the home side masked a sense of deep disappointment in the crowd.
The 1-0 victory was Brunei’s first ever World Cup win, and their players rightly revelled in their moment. With the game broadcast live on TV in both countries, this was a seminal moment in the history of football in the small Sultanate.
But, this was a two-legged affair, and there was still every chance for the Taiwanese in the second leg, which was played last night at the Hassanal Bolkiah National Stadium in Bandar Seri Begawan.
Another large crowd turned out hoping that home side could convert their first leg advantage and qualify for the next stage. There was certainly more purpose about the home side in the first half as well with Taiwan keeper Lu Kun-chi, replacing Yu-hung whose mistake in the first leg had proved so costly, making a few smart saves to keep them at bay.
Once again Taiwan dominated possession and continued to play a neat, passing game but lacked any composure or cutting edge in the final third.
If the goal was going to come, it was always likely that it would be a set-piece that proved decisive. And so it proved in the 37th minute when the Brunei defence failed to clear a corner and centre back Wang Ruei was on hand to stab the ball home from the edge of the six yard box.
Forced to come out a bit more in search of another goal, Brunei looked vulnerable at the top of the second half, and on 53 minutes Taiwan scored the crucial second goal, with Chu En-le bundling home from close range after some shocking defending following a throw-in.
That it looked suspiciously like a foul throw mattered not to the away team, who knew that a crucial second goal put them in the diriving seat.
And so it proved a Brunei’s heads dropped and it was clear they didn’t believe they could get the two goals they now required to progressed. Their game became dirty and frustrated, and that they escaped the match with only one yellow card was something of a minor miracle.
That was the only miracle they would find though as the full-time whistle signalled that it would be Taiwan who retained hopes of making it to Russia in three long years time.
Realistically though, there was nothing in either of these performances to suggest that they are likely to trouble the final stages of this tournament, or indeed any tournament, in the near future
Whilst they can play some tidy football in the middle of the park, the same crucial problems remain. They have no attacking threat to speak of, with a total lack of composure and attacking instinct in evidence regardless of who plays up front for them.
Meanwhile at the back, they continue to look nervous and jittery, and this makes individual mistakes more likely, and their impact more devastating.
It remains to be seen if coach Chen Kuei-Jen, whose dramatic celebrations at the end of the second leg were more reminiscent of a manager who had won the World Cup, rather than simply not gone out three years before it started, can generate some positives from this qualification campaign and begin to build something more promising for the future.
For now though, the fans will simply be glad to be through and will look forward to the next fixtures on the long, long, long road to Moscow.
Elsewhere last night. Macau held Cambodia to a 1-1 draw at the Macau Olympic Complex, but a 3-0 defeat in Phnom Pehn last week saw them eliminated 4-1 on aggregate.
Meanwhile Nepal held India to a very creditable 0-0 draw in Kathmandu, but again went out on aggregate following last week’s 2-0 reverse in Guwahati.
And Mongolia lost 1-0 at home to Timor-Leste, which on top of a 4-1 humbling in the away leg saw them out of the tournament 5-1 on aggregate.
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