With hosts Australia going through an identity crisis at the moment, and numerous other Asian Cup contenders taking on new managers recently, the continental tournament is set to provide plenty of shocks.
Last year East Asian Soccer said neither Australia nor Japan could win the tournament. Since then Japan has experienced a stunning form turnaround, whilst Australia is still languishing at 100 in the FIFA rankings.
Yes, Japan are back on our contenders list but there has been nothing to suggest Australia can suddenly halt their steep descent through the rankings. Current manager Ange Postecoglou is defiant in his bid to play pressing and passing football, despite the results the tactics have yielded (2 wins from 12 matches).
The Socceroos come into the tournament opener against Kuwait heavily dependent on Tim Cahill. “They’ve always been a difficult opponent for Australia . . .” Postecoglou told the media at a recent press conference. But the general public are totally unaware of the threat of Kuwait. One radio station had hosts talking about bringing on substitutes against Kuwait if the Aussies are leading 3-nil or 6-nil.
Kuwait themselves have had a recent managerial change and their form is also on a downward spiral, winning 1 from their last 6. Boss Nabil Maaloul said the team had regained some confidence since he took charge on December 18, after a disappointing Gulf Cup. Head to head it’s Kuwait 5, Australia 3, and 2 draws.
Winners of the Gulf Cup in November, Qatar do nothing but impress me, and they’re the dark horse of the tournament. The Maroon are undefeated in their last 11 matches. Amongst the scalps they’ve claimed are Uzbekistan, Australia and Estonia. In a tournament full of questions, the form line of Qatar provides answers. They’ll advance through Group C, but they need to win their group or they’ll face Japan in the quarter finals.
Iran were an early favourite at East Asian Soccer but their disrupted campaign has us concerned. Team Melli has had just two friendlies since their decent showing at Brazil 2014. Though it should be noted they won those two friendlies. One against Korea Republic in November and the other against Iraq last week.
In their favour is the fact they meet Bahrain first, who we see as the weakest of their group opponents. Manager Carlos Queiroz has been coy since arriving in Australia and you get the feeling Iran is ticking along fine behind the smoke and mirrors.
Korea Republic is another definite contender. The Taeguk Warriors have too much class to not make an impact here in Australia. They haven’t won the tournament since 1960 and it’s high time for them to taste success again.
With European based stars Ki Seung Yong, Lee Chung Yong, Son Heung Min it’s silly to think the Reds won’t click at some stage of the tournament. After their wretched performance at Brazil, they’ll be out to make amends.
New manager Uli Stielike was a surprise choice for many, given he’s had an on-off experience as boss. Most recently at Al Arabi in the Qatari Star League, the German should not have a problem with getting the Korean to click. Their glamour is backboned by some experienced campaigners, Cha Du Ri, Lee Keun Ho and 29 year old goalkeeper Jung Sung Ryong.
Korea Republic will advance through their group and most likely face China or Uzbekistan, from their they’ll face Iran or Qatar in the semi final, before going all the way in front of a ravenous crowd of expats in Sydney.
The Asian Cup is sure to provide plenty of surprises over the next three weeks. I’m crossing my fingers the hosts can advance beyond the group stage.