Asian Cup Preview: Groups D, E, F
Part 2 of our ultimate preview of the 2019 Asian Cup03 January 2019 | Paul Williams
In our second part of the ultimate Asian Cup preview, we take a look at the teams, the matches and analyses their chances - this time with Groups D, E and F.
In addition to Iran v Iraq on 16 January, perhaps the most intriguing match-up is the one between Gulf blockade enemies, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, on 17 January. The fact that the match is taking place on UAE soil, an ally of Saudi Arabia in the Gulf blockade, makes it even more intriguing.
There is also the first appearance of Yemen; a country at war, no league competition since 2014 and unable to play games at home, but which made it anyway under the guidance of Ethiopian coach, Abraham Mebratu.
Here is Part 2 of Paul Williams' exclusive preview.
- Iran (29), Iraq (88), Vietnam (100), Yemen (135)
- Iran v Yemen – 7 January (Abu Dhabi)
- Iraq v Vietnam – 8 January (Abu Dhabi)
- Vietnam v Iran – 12 January (Abu Dhabi)
- Yemen v Iraq – 12 January (Sharjah)
- Vietnam v Yemen – 16 January (Al Ain)
- Iran v Iraq – 16 January (Dubai)
If ever Iran are to end their 42-year title drought it will be this year under the guidance of long-term coach Carlos Queiroz. Team Melliwon fans at the World Cup for the way they pushed Spain and Portugal, and the heartbreaking way they exited the tournament, and they need to use that as motivation.
No one can question the talent, they have that in droves, while they also have the right mix of youth and experience. The question mark over this side is the style of play, and whether that holds up against Asian opposition. Against the likes of Spain and Portugal, a more defensive and pragmatic game style works well. But against the likes of Yemen, Vietnam and even Iraq, Iran need to be the dominant team.
They showed at the World Cup, when they have to attack they can do so with purpose and quality, just hopefully Queiroz allows them to play a more free-flowing game because goal scoring has been an issue for them in the past, and that has nothing to do with a lack of talent on the park.
Iraq are one of those teams that could be anything, and you never quite know what you’re going to get from them until they run out on the park.
A repeat of their heroics from 2007 is unlikely as this is more a team in transition, with a host of young talent coming through as they build towards Qatar 2022 and the 2023 Asian Cup.
A lot of excitement exists around a pair of 18-year-old strikers in Mohanad Ali and Mohammed Dawood, the latter bursting onto the scene in 2016 by winning the MVP and Golden Boot at that year’s AFC U16 Championships, while Bashar Resan and Humam Tariq (both 22) are exciting prospects, not for the future, but for right now, with Resan a key plank in the Persepolis side that made last year’s AFC Champions League final.
And speaking of young talent, Vietnam are a side that has that in droves and are officially the youngest team at this year’s AFC Asian Cup. With an average age of just 23, and fresh from their triumph in the AFF Suzuki Cup, they are a team that are capable of an upset or two, as they proved when they made it to the final of the AFC U23 Championships last year.
Under Korean coach Park Hang-seo, a pragmatist who likes a defensive first approach, they have shown they can match it and challenge Asia’s best and with young talent like Nguyen Cong Phuong, Phan Van Duc, Luong Xuan Truong and the exciting Nguyen Quang Hai, they should be eyeing off a Round of 16 berth if they aren’t mentally and physically exhausted from their AFF Suzuki Cup campaign.
Yemen are one of this year’s good luck stories given the current situation in the country, making their first ever appearance at the AFC Asian Cup. With most of the squad now based outside of the country, they live a nomadic existence, and have a new coach in charge with Jan Kocian taking over after Abraham Mebratu, the man who took them through qualifying, left to take charge of his native Ethiopia.
With little time to prepare, Kocian and his coaching staff will have their work cut out for them, but recent narrow losses against UAE and Saudi Arabia at least show they won’t be pushovers. But their desire to play an attacking style of game may prove their undoing against stronger nations.
Iran to face few challenges on their way to topping the group, while Vietnam will suffer for their Suzuki Cup success by finishing third behind Iraq, but will still advance from the group stage and Yemen will finish bottom.
- Saudi Arabia (69), Lebanon (81), Qatar (93), DPR Korea (109)
- Saudi Arabia v DPR Korea – 8 January (Dubai)
- Qatar v Lebanon – 9 January (Al Ain)
- Lebanon v Saudi Arabia – 12 January (Dubai)
- DPR Korea v Qatar – 13 January (Al Ain)
- Saudi Arabia v Qatar – 17 January (Abu Dhabi)
- Lebanon v DPR Korea – 17 January (Sharjah)
Stability is not often a word you can associate with Saudi Arabia, but that is the case as they search for their first Asian Cup since 1996, ironically the last time the UAE hosted the tournament.
Juan Antonio Pizzi has remained in charge since taking the team to the World Cup, and while most of the world will remember their meek capitulation against Russia in the opening game, their performances against Uruguay (0-1 loss) and Egypt (2-1 win) showed this is a team capable of far more than they displayed in Moscow.
Pizzi has made some interesting selection decisions, choosing to name only the uncapped 25-year-old Mohammed Al-Saiari, the most prolific Saudi striker this year with eight goals, as the only recognised striker in the team, leaving out the talented 20-year-old Haroune Camara who most expected to make the cut. A lot of the attacking threat will come via the wings and midfield, with Fahad Al-Muwallad and Salem Al-Dawsari both key in that respect.
Qatar is a team built for the now and the future. The nucleus of this team has been developed from the underage level through to the senior national team, all under the guidance of Spaniard Felix Sanchez, who is now in charge of the senior team.
Coming off an impressive series of results in Europe against Switzerland (win) and Iceland (draw), the Qataris will be full of confidence that they can go further than they’ve ever been before, which is a quarter final appearance.
Up front the attack is led by talented young striker Almoez Ali, who impressed at the AFC U23 Championships last year, and the dynamic Akram Afif, who looks to be a star of the future, not just for Qatar but for Asia in general – quick feet, brilliant technically, speed to burn and a cool finish, the 22-year-old has it all.
It’ll be a welcome return to the Asian Cup for the first time since 2000 for Lebanon. The Cedars impressive run of form has been halted of late with losses to Kuwait, Australia and Bahrain meaning they come into the tournament without a win in five games after going 15 without a loss prior to that.
Miodrag Radulovic has plenty of experience to call upon, but it’s captain Hassan Maatouk that is the barometer of the side and if they are to achieve anything in this Asian Cup then they need their leader to be the one driving things in midfield.
DPR Korea are a complete unknown, to the point that there are conflicting 23-man squads doing the rounds. Just who will take to the field for the North Koreans? Jong Il-Gwan has proven to be a prolific scorer, and plenty will be hoping to see exciting Italian-based attacker Han Kwang-Song, along with Pak Kwang-Ryong who plays in Austria. Surprisingly, An Il-Bom, the leading scorer in the AFC Cup last year, was left out of the side.
Despite qualifying for the 2010 FIFA World Cup, which shows they have quality, a point again proven by youth team results, their Asian Cup record is poor, having failed to win a game or progress past the group stage since 1980.
Saudi Arabia and Qatar are the two clear standout teams in this group, and I think Qatar will emerge as top of the group, followed by Saudi Arabia. The winner of the match between DPR Korea and Lebanon on the final matchday in Sharjah will decide who finishes third in the group.
- Japan (50), Oman (82), Uzbekistan (95), Turkmenistan (127)
- Japan v Turkmenistan – 9 January (Abu Dhabi)
- Uzbekistan v Oman – 9 January (Sharjah)
- Oman v Japan – 13 January (Abu Dhabi)
- Turkmenistan v Uzbekistan – 13 January (Dubai)
- Oman v Turkmenistan – 17 January (Abu Dhabi)
- Japan v Uzbekistan – 17 January (Al Ain)
This is a new-look Japan team that comes in search of a fifth Asian Cup title, with experienced quartet Keisuke Honda, Shinji Kagawa, Shinji Okazaki and Makoto Hasebe (with a combined 423 caps) all no longer involved with the national team as new coach Hajime Moriyasu looks to bring through a new generation of talent.
In their place come a new attacking trio in Takumi Minamino (23), Ritsu Doan (20) and Shoya Nakajima (24), who have been impressive for Japan in their recent friendly matches, either scoring or having a hand in more than half of their 15 goals since the World Cup.
Mixed in with the new generation is a number of experienced players, giving Moriyasu the balance required to ensure the team stays competitive and right in the mix for the title, with the likes of Yuto Nagatomo, Maya Yoshida, Hiroki Sakai, Tomoaki Makino and Genki Haraguchi all experienced members of the Samurai Blue.
For so long Uzbekistan has been a team that has threatened to join Asia’s elite, but all too often they’ve conspired to shoot themselves in the foot and throw away World Cup qualification.
Hector Cuper will have his work cut out getting this squad to reach the heights of those previous, with key players stagnating in their careers over the last few years. Key amongst those has been Sardor Rashidov, who was so impressive at the last Asian Cup in Australia. Now 27, Cuper will need the prodigiously talented winger to recapture that form if Uzbekistan are to progress deep into the tournament.
If there is to be one shining light, it will hopefully be the emergence of a new generation of players, with five players from the side that won the AFC U23 Championship last year named in this squad, including tournament MVP Odiljon Hamrobekov.
Pim Verbeek’s Oman looked on paper like they could challenge Uzbekistan for second spot in the group behind Japan, but after their abject showing against Australia many people will be re-evaluating their predictions. Until the match against Australia, Oman had enjoyed a fruitful 2018, winning the Gulf Cup at the start of the year and going through the year undefeated with wins against Palestine, Bahrain and Tajikistan, with draws against Ecuador and Syria.
What will be their undoing is a lack of class in the final third. They’ve only scored two goals in a game twice this year (in wins against Bahrain and Tajikistan) and in their disjointed display against Australia only Jameel Al-Yahmadi looked likely.
Finally, Turkmenistan make their first appearance at the Asian Cup since 2004. While they will be considered outsiders by most observers, like their Central Asian counterparts in Kyrgyz Republic, they benefit from the fact that almost their entire team come from the one club – Altyn Asyr – who have the same coach as the national team.
That means Ýazguly Hojageldyýew has been working with the nucleus of his squad for the last 12 months, working towards this point, and the form of Altyn Asyr at club level was impressive as they made it to the final of the AFC Cup for the first time in their history.
Along the way Altymyrat Annadurdyýew put in a number of impressive performances, finishing the tournament with eight goals, while Süleýman Muhadow also impressed.
Japan will have no trouble topping this group, likely with three wins from their three matches, while Uzbekistan should have enough quality to finish second. If Oman can put in an improved showing, they should finish third, but don’t rule out the Turkmen causing an upset.
Images courtesy Asian Football Confederation.
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