Omani defender optimistic ahead of World Cup qualifiers
Not even the most optimistic Omani football fan would have believed that their national team could recover from a woeful start to the third round of Asian qualifiers for the 2014 Fifa World Cup in which they failed to win any of their first three games, conceding six goals and scoring none.
An early exit seemed inevitable but Paul Le Guen's charges showed they were far from finished, taking seven points from their last three matches and benefitting from Saudi Arabia's defeat to Australia to squeeze into the fourth round.
Much of the credit for this dramatic late resurgence must go to Oman's rearguard, especially the veteran pairing of goalkeeper Ali Al Habsi and defender Hassan Mudhafar, who helped their side keep clean sheets in the final three third-round games.
The comeback began against Group D front-runners Australia, with the Omanis recording a surprise 1-0 win against the side who had beaten them 3-0 in Sydney only a month before. Four days later Mudhafar and his team were in Riyadh, where they gave another defensive master-class to hold their Saudi hosts to a goalless draw for the second time in the group games.
And so it all came down to the final fixture against Thailand, when an indefatigable Mudhafar marshalled the defence from first to last. Oman's 2-0 win not only made amends for their 3-0 loss to the Thais in the corresponding away fixture, it proved enough to guarantee their passage into the fourth round.
Having been written off earlier in the group phase, Mudhafar is justly proud of his side's achievement.
"After our terrible start no one thought we could do it. However, the team pulled together and achieved the impossible in what was a very tricky group," said Mudhafar in an interview with Fifa.com.
"We did it by turning things round 180 degrees from the first three games," explained the defender. "The dreadful performance in our first game against Thailand was a sore point, but thankfully we beat them convincingly on the return leg "We know that we're up against some very strong sides in Australia and Japan, but we're not here for the fun of it. We'll show people that we're no pushovers."
Oman qualified from one of the toughest groups and now find themselves in looks even more daunting, featuring as it does Asian powerhouses Australia and Japan as well as two dangerous outfits in Iraq and Jordan.
Far from being overwhelmed, Mudhafar remains confident that Oman have what it takes to do well: "Nothing's impossible in football," he insisted: "We want to prove that we're a match for anybody."
"Of course," he added, "we know that we're up against some very strong sides in Australia and Japan, but we're not here for the fun of it. We'll show people that we're no pushovers. "Our first game is against Japan," he continued. "It will be a stern test because we'll be playing away in very different conditions to those we're used to in Oman. It won't be easy but I hope we can get a good result ahead of our next match against Australia in Muscat.
"If we want to go any further, we need to get good results in the opening two matches. We're going to be treating them like final where winning is the only option."