SHAFAQNA – Coach Paul Le Guen has guided Oman to a third Asian Cup appearance and despite being drawn in the toughest of groups, the well-travelled Frenchman is confident he can lead the side into the knockout stages for the first time.
Oman would have been fearing the worst when they were drawn in Group A with hosts Australia, regional giants South Korea and Kuwait, and few will expect them to progress from a pool that contains two of Asia’s regular World Cup representatives.
Le Guen, however, says his side are ready to face up to the challenge, firmly believing they can advance from the group after previous failures in 2004 and 2007.
“I have belief in my team. It will be a tough challenge but I know that sides like Australia are scared of us,” the 50-year-old Frenchman told reporters in Muscat recently.
“They know we have the ability to trouble them. We are no longer pushovers.”
Should they get anything out of their opening match against South Korea in Canberra on Jan. 10, or the Socceroos in Sydney three days later, Oman could be in a strong position ahead of the match against a Kuwait side they thrashed 5-0 in November.
However, with a patchy lead-up to the competition and back-to-back matches against two of the pre-tournament favourites, any victory against Kuwait is likely to end up being a consolation win in another group stage exit.
Barring Wigan Athletic goalkeeper and skipper Ali Al-Habsi, Oman will arrive in Australia with an entirely home-based squad, who have had a busy build-up period to the finals, kicking off with an entertaining 4-3 loss to Costa Rica in October.
After a 3-0 defeat to Uruguay, Le Guen’s men claimed their first win since May when they defeated Yemen 2-0 at home before encouraging draws against the UAE and Iraq.
Looking to follow up their 2009 triumph with a second Gulf Cup of Nations title in November, Oman opened with that resounding victory over Kuwait but lost to eventual champions Qatar and the UAE to depart the tournament in the pool phase.
Undeterred by their inconsistent form, Le Guen, who enjoyed club success in his native France with Lyon and Paris St Germain and guided Cameroon to the 2010 World Cup finals, hopes the squad will repay his faith in them with positive results.
“It is a good feeling when you know that rival teams consider us strong and competitive. Our players need to capitalise on it and become more ambitious,” he said.
“I can assure you, we are not just going to make up the numbers in Australia,” he added. “We are travelling not just to play, we want to bring good results. I have faith in my boys, they can deliver.”
While Al-Habsi will need to be at his best to prevent Oman from conceding at one end, 30-year-old striker Amad Al-Hosni, who has scored 36 goals in 115 appearances, is likely to spearhead the Red Warriors’ attack.