Despite an opening-day defeat to group favorites UAE back in February, Oman bounced back to pull off four successive victories and book a spot at their second continental showpiece with one match still to play. Their last two wins, namely a 5-0 mauling of Pakistan and a 2-1 triumph over the Emirates in the return match, coupled with a comfortable 3-0 friendly win against Syria, to shoot Oman up to 63rd in the global ranking this month.
It is an amazing achievement for the tiny Gulf nation, with a population of just over three million. They are now looking down on a number of the continent's traditional powerhouses, the likes of Kuwait and China PR
to name only a few. Currently the eighth-placed Asian side in the world ranking, the new kids on the block are only one spot behind three-time Asian champions Saudi Arabia.
A focus on youth
It is no secret in Asian footballing circles that rapid youth development has lifted the overall level of play in the Gulf nation.
With the FA founded in 1978 and affiliated to FIFA as late as 1980, Oman are a relatively young member of the world football fraternity. However, thanks to a number of well-planned development schemes and the aid of FIFA's Goal Project, the beautiful game has quickly taken root and became the most popular sport throughout the nation.
Oman burst into the world stage in 1995 by reaching the semi-finals of the FIFA U-17 World Championship in Ecuador. They continued their rapid rise at youth level in the following years, winning the AFC U-17 Championship in both 1996 and 2000.
Many of the young stars quickly developed into some of Asia's most promising senior players. The most notable is Ali Al Habsi, who became the first Asian goalkeeper to play in the English Premiership when he moved to Bolton Wanderers in January.
Al Habsi played a key role in Oman's successful qualifying run to the 2007 Asian Cup, only conceding three goals in five games while his mates put 14 in the net at the other end.
Talisman Macala returns
Both Al Habsi and his young team-mates will all have been pleased to see the return of coach Milan Macala, who laid the foundations of the current squad by helping turn many unpolished diamonds into full professionals.
Under the Czech coach, Oman reached their first Asian Cup finals in 2004, where, despite an early exit in the group stages, they impressed by holding Iran to a 2-2 draw and only lost to Japan 1-0. Then Macala went to lead the side to a runners-up medal in the most recent Gulf Cup in December 2004.
After a one-year absence, when he led UAE club giants Al Ain to second place in last year's AFC Champions League, Macala was reappointed to the Omani helm in the wake of the team's 1-0 opening defeat against group favourites UAE back in February. Since then, the boss's return has been marked by a series of impressive victories highlighted by the recent 2-1 win over UAE.
Looking forward, the winning coach sounds understandably optimistic about the future of his team. "It is good that we booked our qualification to the finals of the Asian Cup for the second consecutive time and this shows the development that Omani football has been undergoing in recent years."
Milan Macala (R) poses for a picture with UAE coach Bruno Metsu before the meeting of the two sides in an AFC Asian Cup qualifier in October.
Oman's Badar Al Maimani (C) and Hassan Al Ghelani (R) try to keep the ball away from the UAE's Haidar Mohammed on 11 October 2006.