Saudi Asian Cup campaign starts with a win

Jose Peseiro, Frank RIjkaard, the Saudi coaching position is a revolving door, but the team might just be finding their feet in time for the Asian Cup.

High up in the stands of a cold and rainswept Al-Rayyan Stadium in January 2011, a group of Saudi sheiks from just over the border stood chatting and laughing as they watched their side succumb to a 5-0 thrashing at the hands of a rampant Japan.

The Saudi Arabia Football Federation obviously failed to see the joke because coach Nasser Al-Johar barely reached the dressing room before word filtered through that he-d been sacked.

Such is the trigger-happy nature of Saudi football that Al-Johar was the second Green Falcons coach to lose his job during a disastrous 2011 Asian Cup showing in Qatar.

The first was Portuguese tactician Jose Peseiro and the Saudis have a love-hate relationship with foreign coaches - in so much as they love hiring them but hate to watch them lose.

Frank Rijkaard recently learned that the hard way, with the Dutchman dismissed just last month after a string of poor results, culminating in an early exit from the regional Gulf Cup of Nations.

Former Real Madrid coach Juan Ramon Lopez Caro is the latest foreigner to take over the highly lucrative Saudi hotseat and given the pressure he-s under to succeed, the Spaniard must be relieved to have passed his first test.

Saudi Arabia beat China 2-1 in their opening 2015 Asian Cup qualifier in Dammam on February 6, as pin-up boy Naif Hazazi came off the bench to volley home the winner and send a partisan crowd at the Prince Mohamed bin Fahd Stadium into raptures.

It seemed the most ecstatic man inside the packed stadium was the new Saudi coach.

"I'm so happy with the result," a delighted Lopez Caro said in the wake of the victory.

"We won the match and I'm so glad that the players fought until the end of the game and they made all the fans who attended the game very pleased with the performance and result."

Well might Lopez Caro be pleased because - historically speaking, at least - Saudi Arabia are one of the Asian Cup-s strongest teams. However, the winds of change have swept through Asian football since they last won the tournament in 1996 and Japan are now the dominant force at the continental showdown.

The Blue Samurai have already qualified for the 2015 finals as defending champions, whilst the addition of both South and North Korea alongside hosts Australia means the qualifying focus has shifted back to the once powerful West Asian bloc.

And with Iran sending a message to the rest of their qualification rivals with a 5-0 thrashing of Lebanon in Tehran, the Saudis know they-re not the only regional powerhouse looking to restore faded glory.

The opening night of qualifying was a good one for teams in and around the Gulf, as Oman, Jordan, Iraq, Kuwait, Bahrain and Qatar all recorded wins.

Kuwait-s was arguably the most impressive, coming as it did within the steamy confines of Thailand-s Rajamangala Stadium, where Kuwait raced out to a 3-0 lead before Chanathip Songkrasin registered a late consolation goal for the hosts.

Meanwhile, Iraq-s 1-0 win over Indonesia in the neutral confines of Dubai means the Saudis are likely to face stiff opposition from their northern neighbours in Group C of qualifying.

That-s unlikely to concern Lopez Caro for the moment - his team next faces Indonesia in Jakarta in March - but with only the top two sides from each group guaranteed their plane tickets to Australia, both the Saudis and 2007 champions Iraq will be determined not to give up ground.

The Saudis succumbed to Iraq in that gripping 2007 final and since then things have taken a decided turn for the worse.

The travelling sheiks will hope to have some decent football to smile about should Saudi Arabia touch down in Australia in 2015, as this West Asian powerhouse looks to get back on track.