China Favorite to Top Group B in World Cup Asian Final: Thai Newspaper

China on Friday emerged as clear favorite to clinch their first World Cup finals berth when they were drawn into the considerably weaker group for Asia's final qualifying round, the Bangkok Post reported Saturday.

China, particular their Yugoslav coach Bora Milutinovic, could not have asked for a better draw as they were bracketed with the UAE, Uzbekistan, Qatar and Oman in Group B.

The tougher Group A comprises Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Iraq, Thailand and Iran. Favorites Saudi Arabia and Iran, who both qualified for the 1998 finals, are confident that they will make it again this time around.

Despite the dream draw, Milutinovic was not celebrating, although he admitted that avoiding Saudi Arabia and Iran was a good thing.

"Every game will be tough. Every team is tough. Everyone wants to win. We also want to win," he said.

Asked if he was confident the Chinese would go through to the finals, the Yugoslav said: "Always confident. But we have to work hard."

If China qualify, Milutinovic will set a record by coaching five different nations in five finals. He coached Mexico in 1986, Costa Rica in 1990, the United States in 1994 and Nigeria in 1998.

But his position is precarious as he was criticized by Chinese authorities and the media after China recorded an unconvincing 3-1 win against minnows Cambodia in the first round.

It is almost certain that Milutinovic will get the axe if China fail to reach the finals, the report said. But Milutinovic said he was not worried about the prospect of being sacked.

"Whether I stay or not is another story. I am a coach and I will do my job," said Milutinovic.

In Group A, Saudi Arabia's Yugoslav coach Slobodan Santrac said the Gulf powerhouses, who reached the 1994 finals, would respect their opponents.

Santrac, who coached Yugoslavia at the 1998 World Cup in France, said the group was harder than Group B.

With four western Asian teams in Group A, Santrac said that was an advantage for Saudi Arabia because they are in the same time zone. But he added that the five-hour time difference with Thailand may affect his team's performance.

"Saudi Arabia are favorites and we are confident that we will qualify. We will be the first in our group," he said.

"Thailand surprised me by reaching this stage and I was also surprised that Bahrain got through." Bahrain knocked out Kuwait in the first qualifying phase.

Iran's Croatian assistant coach Branko Ivankovic said the Iranians, who have played in two finals, would be the underdogs but he was still confident.

"In this second round, every team is a strong team. Saudi Arabia are favorites but our team is also a good team. We have a lot of good players and have prepared well," he said.

Hassein Saeed, secretary-general of the Iraqi Football Association, said each team in Group B had an equal chance of finishing top.

Saeed, who played for Iraq in the 1986 World Cup finals, said Thailand were a strong team. He also insisted there would not be a political problem with bitter rivals Iran, and that Iraq was safe enough to host matches.

People's Daily Online ---