The 16th edition of the Asian Cup will be held from January 9-31 in five cities - Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Canberra and Newcastle.
Oman, which couldn't make it to the previous edition in Doha, Qatar in 2011, has featured only twice in the continental championship, in 2004 and 2007. On both occasions, the sultanate team failed to go past the group stage.
We’re outsiders, but confident: Le Guen
Le Guen is optimistic that his team has the ability to go past the group stage despite being pooled in a 'very tough group' that also features Australia, South Korea and Kuwait.
Speaking to Muscat Daily ahead of the team's departure on Friday night to Australia, Le Guen said, “We are outsiders in the group. Hosts Australia and South Korea are the favourites to advance. But I am confident we can surprise these heavyweights.”
The experienced Frenchman added, “I have belief in my team. It will be a tough challenge, but I know that sides like Australia are scared of us. They know we have the ability to trouble them. We are no longer pushovers.
“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.”
Le Guen is confident that his players will make a mark in the Asian Cup. “I can assure you, we are not just going to make up the numbers in Australia,” he said. “We are travelling not just to play, we want to bring good results. I have faith in my boys, they can deliver.
“My trust in these players is based on the way the team is playing now. We can compete with the best teams in the world and we have the potential to trouble big sides.”
‘First two games will be crucial’
The Oman think tank is focusing on the opening two games. “Our first two games against South Korea [on January 10] and Australia [January 13] are crucial,” Le Guen said. “I don't know what to expect from the South Koreans in our opener as they have a new coach [Uli Stielike] now. We have studied their videos, they have quite a few experienced players. As for the hosts, I know the team very well, I watched them in the 2014 World Cup.”
The Oman coach said, “The Australians have blooded in a lot of youngsters and the team has some good young players. We have had some tightly-contested matches and they know we can trouble them.”
Oman had thrashed Kuwait 5-0 in the Gulf Cup in Saudi Arabia earlier this year. But Le Guen believes that having an upper-hand over the Kuwaitis in the third group-stage match may not eventually play much of a role as Oman's fate could be decided in its opening two games. “It was a good victory in Riyadh [Gulf Cup], but that is history now,” he said.
Coach to bank on strong ‘backbone’
Le Guen, who has always preferred a stable team composition, is expected to retain what he calls the 'backbone' of the side, with captain Ali al Habsi spearheading it. Mazin al Kasbi and Muhannad al Zaabi will travel to
Australia as Habsi's reserve keepers.
Among the players confirmed for the trip Down Under, Abdulsalam Amour, Mohammed al Mussallami, Saad Suhail, Jaber al Owaisi, Ali al Busaidy and Ahmed Saleem will form the back line. The midfield will be manned by seasoned campaigner Ahmed Mubarak 'Kanu', Eid al Farsi, Raeed Ibrahim, Ali al Jabri and Mohsin Jawhar. Oman's strikers comprise Imad al Hosni, Abdulaziz al Miqbali, Said al Ruzaiqi, Mohammed al Siyabi, Yaqoob Abdulkarim and Qasim Saeed. The 23-member team will be announced on Friday.
On the fitness front, Hussain Mudhaffar, who has a hamstring niggle, is Le Guen's lone worry.
“Hussain is a worry; I will make a late call on his inclusion on Thursday. The core of the team remains the same, I just need to decide on two or three names,” said Le Guen.
He also said that Mohammed al Mashari and Fahad al Jalboobi have been ruled out due to injuries.
Oman’s reserves under scanner
Speaking about Oman's bench, Le Guen said that he was a little disappointed with the display of his young reserves at the Gulf Cup where a few of them were given the opportunity to showcase their talent.
“Frankly, I expected more from them. They need to realise that there are not many opportunities available and when they come, they need to grab them,” said the coach, who has been in charge of the team for nearly four years now.
Le Guen said he is waiting for some of his talented players to explode onto the continent's biggest stage, adding, “I have a strong feeling that a couple of them will be a revelation at the event.”
Full support for struggling Habsi
The coach expressed his full support for Habsi, who has been struggling with his form of late due to a lack of matches for Wigan in the English Championship.
“I have full faith in him. He has not been in the best of form, but these phases come in a player's life. When you do not start in a match, frustration grows, but the only way out is to train more and more,” said Le Guen.
The coach said Habsi is a 'clever footballer and understands that hard work is the only way forward'.
‘In Gulf Cup, we were close to something big’
Recalling Oman's 1-3 semifinal loss to eventual champion Qatar in the Gulf Cup, Le Guen said, “In the first half, we had a really good game. It was only in the second half that the team lost focus. We were very close to achieving something big this time.”
The Oman coach pointed out, “The players should have belief in winning big matches. They need to make more sacrifices to achieve that.”
Oman will play two friendlies in Canberra before starting its Asian Cup campaign. It plays Qatar on December 31 and takes on China on January 3.
Le Guen said, “I plan to treat the China friendly like two separate games of 35 minutes each, in which I want to field all 23 players. It will be good preparation for them. The players have anyway been taking part in tough matches in the Omantel Professional League (OPL) and the HM's Cup till recently.”
Oman squad (likely): Goalkeepers: Ali al Habsi, Mazin al Kasbi, Muhannad al Zaabi; Defenders: Abdulsalam Amour, Mohammed al Mussallami, Saad Suhail, Jaber al Owaisi, Ahmed Saleem, Nasser al Shimli, Ali al Busaidy; Midfielders: Ahmed Mubarak 'Kanu', Eid al Farsi, Ali Salim al Nahar, Raeed Ibrahim, Ali al Jabri, Hussain Mudhaffar, Mohsin Jawhar; Strikers: Imad al Hosni, Abdulaziz al Miqbali, Said al Ruzaiqi, Mohammed al Siyabi, Yaqoob Abdulkarim and Qasim Saeed.