National Team Prepares for Uncharted Territory
Image property of the MFF
On 24 February the Asian Football Confederation conducted its draw to determine groupings for the third round of AFC Asian Cup qualification matches. A week before the draw, it was announced that Mongolia would be one of eight associations to host a group. As a result of the draft Mongolia was placed into Group B along with Palestine, the Philippines, and Yemen.
Simply advancing this far into qualification is uncharted territory for Mongolia. However, the Blue Wolves will also face a group of opponents with which the team has almost no experience. The nation has never played a single international match against either Palestine or Yemen. While the Philippines and Mongolia did play a home-and-away series in qualifying for the 2012 edition of this tournament, it has been over a decade since their first and only encounters. An optimist would say that the lack of familiarity will be equally challenging for the visitors. Thankfully home-field advantage should help the Mongolian team which has the lowest FIFA World Ranking in its group.
At the time of the draft, Mongolia was ranked 184th in the world, significantly behind Palestine (100), the Philippines (129), and Yemen (151). Rank is not the only challenge Mongolia will face.
While none of the opposing teams has a bona fide superstar to worry about, the rosters of the visitors are diverse. Both the Philippines and, to a lesser extent, Palestine have a large diaspora of eligible players to select from around the world. In such a case, it is difficult to predict what players they have identified and will select. Yemen also leaves a lot of questions because a vast majority of its roster plays in its domestic league which is a complete mystery outside of the country.
In preparation for the the June matches, Mongolia will travel to Bangladesh to take on the home side on 29 March. While the MFF has not officially announced the match yet, its Bangladeshi counterpart has. It is also likely that Mongolia is attempting to schedule a second friendly in the March window.
This friendly should add clarity to another unknown factor, new head coach Ichiro Otsuka. The Japanese tactician has not yet coached the national side since taking over in December 2021. In fact, he has never directed any national side, after spending several years as a club coach before spending the last decade managing a high school squad.
Despite many unknowns, a strong core of players remains in tact which represents a blend of youth and experience. This group defeated 96th-ranked Kyrgyzstan to clinch a third-round berth, giving hope that Mongolia may be able to earn a few points if not advance to the finals.