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The 2019 AFC Asian Cup begins later this week when host nation UAE take on Bahrain in Abu Dhabi, looking to repeat their efforts from four years ago when they stunned Japan en-route to the semi finals.

But can they repeat their heroics? Can Australia defend their title? Will Iran or Korea Republic end their lengthy title droughts? Or will Japan once again reign supreme?

Group A

Teams (in FIFA ranking order with ranking in brackets)

  • UAE (79), India (97), Bahrain (113), Thailand (118)

Matches

  • UAE v Bahrain – 5 January (Abu Dhabi)
  • Thailand v India – 6 January (Abu Dhabi)
  • Bahrain v Thailand – 10 January (Dubai)
  • India v UAE – 10 January (Abu Dhabi)
  • UAE v Thailand – 14 January (Al Ain)
  • India v Bahrain – 14 January (Sharjah)

Analysis

As host nation much is expected of UAE, but their preparation and lead in form has been far from ideal under Italian coach Albert Zaccheroni, who won the tournament with Japan in 2011. On the surface it looked to be tracking OK when they made the final of the Gulf Cup at the start of the year, but they did so only scoring once – a sign of things to come under the pragmatic Italian.

Things are made that much harder by the absence of key playmaker Omar Abdulrahman, with the curly-haired superstar injuring his knee in November while playing for Al Hilal.

On the plus side is the form of Ali Mabkhout, the golden boot winner from 2015, who has been in scintillating form for Al Jazira domestically, as has Khalfan Mubarak, one of the brightest prospects to emerge in the Emirates since Abdulrahman. Whether Zaccheroni gives him the chance to lead the team is another matter all together.

Thailand’s emergence over the last World Cup cycle has been one of the feelgood stories of Asian football, and it has set them up nicely to make it through to the knockout rounds of the tournament for the first time since 1972.

Chanathip Songkrasin, the elegant and silky midfielder, is the heartbeat of this side and coming off the back of a breakout season in Japan, where he was named in the J.League team of the season, he looks set to have a major influence on this team and this tournament.

The one worry they have is between the sticks after regular number one Kawin Thamsatchanan, one of the best keepers in Asia, was ruled out with injury. Chatchai Budprom deputised during the recent AFF Suzuki Cup, but he put in a number of shaky performances, which might make Milovan Rajevac re-evaluate who he puts between the sticks.

The rise of India hasn’t been as profound as that of Thailand, FIFA rankings aside, but they have shown they have the potential to take their game to another level. The worry for the Blue Tigers is that their form has tapered off over the last 12 months as reports of friction between players and coach emerge. Stephen Constantine has done an admirable job in improving India as much as he has, but his legacy will be determined by their performance at this tournament.

The recent decision to axe the god of Indian football, Sunil Chhetri, as captain didn’t go down well in India, nor did the veiled criticism of Chhetri in his explanation of the decision, saying, “I think the captain has to reflect the attitude of the coach.” It came after Chhetri, and other senior players, reportedly went to the All India Football Federation earlier in the year demanding Constantine be sacked.

How that relationship has healed, if at all, will have a big influence on how India perform at this tournament.

Finally, Bahrain head into the tournament with stability in the dugout, if not quality on the park. Czech coach Miroslov Soukup has been in charge since 2016, an eternity in Gulf football, but he has limited playing resources to choose from.

Gone are the glory days of Bahraini football, when they made the semi finals of the Asian Cup in 2004, and just missed the World Cups of 2006 and 2010.

Striker Abdulla Yusuf is one shining light, playing this season for Czech club Bohemains 1905 and scoring five goals in 15 matches so far this season, an impressive return. But aside from Yusuf, and Sayed Mahdi and Sayed Dhiya, who both play in Kuwait, this is a wholly domestic-based squad.

Predictions

UAE and Thailand to both advance from the group, with India to finish third, which may or may not be good enough to advance depending on other groups.

Group B

Teams

  • Australia (41), Syria (74), Palestine (99), Jordan (109)

Matches

  • Australia v Jordan – 6 January (Al Ain)
  • Syria v Palestine – 6 January (Sharjah)
  • Jordan v Syria – 10 January (Al Ain)
  • Palestine v Australia – 11 January (Dubai)
  • Australia v Syria – 15 January (Al Ain)
  • Palestine v Jordan – 15 January (Abu Dhabi)

Analysis

Australia’s campaign has been hurt by the absence of Aaron Mooy, and the likely absence of Mat Leckie, the latter’s absence particularly damaging given the dearth of genuine scoring options in this Socceroos outfit.

Solving the goal scoring woes will be Graham Arnold’s greatest challenge, as the Socceroos are strong in all other areas of the park. Mooy’s absence gives the opportunity for the likes of Massimo Luongo and Jackson Irvine to cement their spot in the side, while Tom Rogic will be particularly important in that creative role in midfield.

One team who could challenge Australia for top spot in Syria after pushing the Socceroos all the way in their thrilling World Cup qualifying playoff in October 2017. While they’re no longer an unknown quantity, they do boast one of the most lethal strike combinations of all the 24 teams in Omar al-Soma and Omar Khrbin.

One player they will have to do without is inspirational leader Firas al-Khatib, who is sidelined with injury. Going in their favour, though, will be the vocal and passionate fan base that will follow them in the UAE, an advantage they didn’t have when they last faced Australia.

Jordan have had an extensive build up, being in camp since early December, but their results in the warm up matches suggest it may be a struggle for them. Belgian coach Vital Borkelmans, a former assistant for the Belgian national team, is the latest man to take charge of the side after somewhat of a revolving door in recent years with no less than seven coaches taking charge of the side since the last Asian Cup.

Borkelmans made the surprising call to axe star striker Hamza al-Dardor, who scored four goals against Palestine back in 2015, but in Musa al-Tamari and Baha’ Faisal he has two, young exciting attackers who he hopes will take his place, while experienced midfielder Yaseen Al-Bakhit has been in impressive form for Dibba Al-Fujairah in the UAE this season.

Palestine copped a baptism of fire back in 2015 in their maiden Asian Cup appearance, but this is a side vastly improved from that iteration, having climbed almost 40 places in the FIFA rankings.

While they copped some hammerings in 2015, don’t expect that to be the case this time as they boast an impressive array of young talent, mixed with experienced players from their diaspora around the world.

One player to watch is 20-year-old Oday Dabbagh, who starred for their U23 side at the AFC U23 Championships 12 months ago, scoring three times as Palestine made it out of the group and into the knockout rounds.

Prediction

It’ll be tight between Australia and Syria at the top of the group, but both will progress to the Round of 16, while it will be equally as tight between Jordan and Palestine, both nations with a significant history away from the football pitch, with the winner of their game on matchday three likely to take third spot.

Group C

Teams

  • South Korea (53), China (76), Kyrgyz Republic (91), Philippines (116)

Matches

  • China v Kyrgyz Republic – 7 January (Al Ain)
  • South Korea v Philippines – 7 January (Dubai)
  • Philippines v China – 11 January (Abu Dhabi)
  • Kyrgyz Republic v South Korea – 11 January (Al Ain)
  • South Korea v China – 16 January (Abu Dhabi)
  • Kyrgyz Republic v Philippines – 16 January (Dubai)

Analysis

South Korea are quite rightly one of the favourites to take out this year’s title, with a team brimming with youth, experience and talent.

The star of the show is undoubtedly Tottenham star Son Heung-min, who has taken the Premier League by storm the last few seasons to become one of the league’s most dangerous players. The 26-year-old will join Korea at the end of the group stages after a deal was done with Spurs to allow him to compete in the Asian Games last year (which, by winning Gold, earned him an exemption from the mandatory military service, a big boost for player and club).

His absence may be a blessing in disguise. Son has been the heart of this team for a while, but has often struggled to transfer his club form to the national team, often appearing burdened by the expectation. Without Son for some, if not all, of the group stage, it means others will need to step up and already we’ve seen Hwang Ui-jo do that, while Hwang Hee-chan is another who has the potential to take some of the attacking burden.

China are often a team that flatter to deceive. There is talent in the squad, but under World Cup-winning manager Marcello Lippi, they’ve never been able to put it together to build a functional, cohesive unit. In Wu Lei they have one of the continent’s best attacking options, but there is little support or creative flair around him. Wei Shihao is a young player who has shown promise, but Lippi often prefers experience over youth.

And that is the dichotomy of Chinese football. The CFA has introduced a number of, at times, bizarre rules and systems to promote the development of young players, but China will go to the Asian Cup with the oldest average age of any team (28). Until they develop a clear plan of what they want to be and how to get there, they will continue to be mired in mediocrity.

The Kyrgyz Republic are the quiet achievers of this group, and are a team that could easily be one of the surprise packets of this tournament.

Their rapid improvement in the last six years is reflected in the FIFA rankings. In 2012 they were ranked as low as 199, towards the very bottom of the FIFA rankings, whereas they are now ranked 91 – their highest ever ranking.

And Australian fans will remember the scare they gave the Socceroos in our first World Cup qualifier in Bishkek in 2015. After Mile Jedinak scored in the second minute, Australia may have been forgiven it would only get easier from then on, but they showed they were made of tougher stuff and caused Australia problems on the break, and were it not for poor finishing may have stolen something from the game.

Much of the side is built around domestic powerhouse Dordoi, with the common denominator being coach Aleksandr Krestinin, who coaches both club and country. That familiarity will serve them well and recent wins over Jordan, Syria and Malaysia, plus a narrow loss to Qatar, show they will be no pushover.

Finally the Philippines are coming off the back of another relatively successful AFF Suzuki Cup campaign, making it to the semi-final where they succumb to eventual champions Vietnam.

Whether that tournament, and the gruelling travel it entailed, leaves them match hardened or tired remains to be seen, but in Sven-Goran Eriksson they have a manager who is well versed in tournament play and what is required to back up game after game.

While Sven is still getting used to the team and the players, we can learn a lot from their recent matches at the AFF Suzuki Cup where they played a more pragmatic style of game, perhaps as a precursor to the style they want to adopt at the Asian Cup.

The big controversy in the build-up was their decision not to select Cardiff City’s Neil Etheridge, but in Michael Falkesgaard they have a capable replacement. The squad is heavy on experience, with the likes of Stephan Schrock, James and Phil Younghusband and Patrick Reichelt, but 22-year-old John-Patrick Strauss showed plenty of potential at the recent AFF Suzuki Cup.

Prediction

South Korea will top the group without any worries, and without Son Heung-min, while the first match between China and Kyrgyz Republic could decide which of those nations finishes second and which finishes third. Sadly, I think the Philippines will struggle and not win a game.


Images courtesy Asian Football Confederation.

See Part 2 of our preview looking in-depth at Groups D, E and F tomorrow (3 January).


Categories: Analysis | Socceroos | Asia

2019 asian cup, group a, group b, group c, australia, socceroos

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