Group B of the Asian Cup brings together Saudi Arabia, champions in 1984, 1988 and 1996 with Japan, champions in 1992, 2000 and 2004. In the last tournament, Saudi Arabia defeated Japan in the semi-finals, which meant that Saudi did not have to play in the qualifying tournament for this competition, while Japan had little trouble in negotiating their way through a group with Bahrain, Yemen and Hong Kong. They lost in 1-0 in Bahrain in their second game, but the other five group games were all won, with 17 goals scored and only three more conceded.
Alberto Zaccheroni was appointed coach of Japan at the end of August, replacing Takeshi Okada who had seen them through the qualifying games and the World Cup finals. Zaccheroni seems to be a surprising choice he is well known in Italy, having had spells at Milan, Lazio, Inter, Torino and Juventus, but not having any success since Milan’s 1999 title, and generally only staying at each club for a short period. Eight members of the side selected by Zaccheroni ply their trade in Europe, while the rest are Japanese based. Hasime Hosogai will switch from Urawa Red Diamonds to Bayer Leverkusen in the winter transfer window. In the midfield for Japan will be Shinji Kagawa, the boy wonder of Borussia Dortmund’s first half of the season
The Saudi coach is Jose Peseiro, formerly an assistant to Carlos Queiroz at Real Madrid, and coach at Sporting Club de Portugal, Panathinaikos and Rapid Bucharest. Having already failed to guide his side into the 2010 World Cup Finals, Peseiro needs a successful tournament if he is to extend his tenure. Saudi Arabia reached the final of the Gulf Cup last month, but were beaten 1-0 aet by Kuwait in the final.
Syria were impressive in qualifying, winning four games and drawing two, giving them a point more than China. Lebanon were beaten home and away, the Chinese at home and Vietnamese away, with the remaining games finishing 0-0. Syria have failed to qualify for the last three Asian Cup tournaments and have never gone beyond the group stage. They met Jordan, the final team in this group during the West Asian championships in Jordan. The match finished 1-1, and with Jordan losing 2-1 to eventual winners Kuwait, they ended up bottom of the three team group. After the West Asia tournament, Syria appointed Serbian Ratomir Dujkovic, whose c.v. included leading Ghana in the 2006 World Cup, but they then sacked him after just one friendly win (2-0 v Bahrain), the Syrian FA claim this was for being late in returning from vacation, while Dujkovic says it was a dispute over appointing his assistants. The new coach is Valerui Tita is a Romanian, combining the duties with coaching leading Syrian club side Al-Ittihad. In the last week, Syria have played Iraq twice, but Tita was only appointed in time for the second game, (which Syria lost) and not the first (which they won). 17 members of the squad play in Syria, only two for Tita’s club side. There are two European based players, Senharib Malki of Lokeren and Louay Chanko of Aalborg.
Jordan’s qualification started with an uninspiring 0-0 draw at home to Thailand and defeats in Singapore and Iran; but they recovered to beat both Iran and Singapore at home, and with another draw in Thailand, they ended up in second place. Going into the final qualifying match, Jordan have five points, playing at home to Singapore on 6, while the Thais, also on 6 were playing away to already qualified Iran. Saify and Beni Yaseen scored as Jordan won their game 2-1, while a last minute goal saw Thailand out. Despite home advantage, Jordan did not reach the semi-final of the West Asian Championship. They have only been in one Asian Cup finals before, reaching the quarter finals in China and then losing a remarkable penalty shoot out after the Japanese persuaded the referee to change ends with Jordan 2-0 up. Jordan scored three penalties, and then missed four in a row, losing 4-3 to the eventual champions. The coach is Adnan Hamad, who has had five spells as coach of his native Iraq side, including the 2004 Asian Championship. Most of the squad play in Syria, with players in Saudi Arabia, Syria and Cyprus.
FIFA rank Japan as 29th in the World, or second in Asia, with Saudi Arabia in 81st, Jordan 104th and Syria 107th. The Japanese are many people’s favourites for the tournament as a whole, but their preparation does leave something to be desired. The Emperor’s cup final goes ahead on its traditional date of January 1st, which means the Japanese players are still playing for their clubs, at home and the winter, while their opponents have been preparing in the region.
Group C features Australia, South Korea, Bahrain and India. South Korea secured their qualification by finishing third in the previous tournament, Australia as winners of a qualifying group, Bahrain as runners-up while India did not play in the qualification, but instead won the 2008 AFC Challenge Cup. This is part of the unusual system used by the AFC in arranging their international tournaments. The first three in the 2007 Asian Cup were given direct qualification to the tournament, along with the holders. There were originally 24 teams to fight out for 10 further places, but North Korea, Myanmar and Turkmenistan withdrew without playing. With 21 teams now in the contest, there was a play-off game in which Lebanon beat Maldives 6-1 on aggregate and the surviving 20 teams were divided into five groups of four, two reaching the finals from each group. The final two places were given to the winners of the secondary international competition, the AFC Challenge Cup played in 2008 (in India) and 2010 (in Sri Lanka). Twenty teams were entered into qualification for the 2008 Cup, including the three sides who had withdrawn from the Asian Cup qualification and India the only country to actually enter in both. After India won in 2008, they too withdrew from the Asian Cup Qualification, causing one group to continue with only three teams. Challenge Cup qualification uses centralised groups (all matches in single round-robin groups, in a single venue), and the host is then chosen from the final eight. The twenty clubs for 2010 included Maldives, after their early elimination from the Asian Cup. India is included in the draw for the 2012 Challenge Cup. I will only find out later if they or anyone else gets a double chance by entering the Asian Cup as well.
All but one of the India team are based in India, the one exception being Sunil Chhetri who plays for Kansas City in the MLS. A surprising number, however are listed as free agents, so there may be some who find new placings if they are successful in Qatar. Best known of the players is the veteran Baichung Bhutia who hopes to add to his 102 caps and 42 international goals despite recent injury. India do not have a good record in past competitions, and have only twice qualified for the finals. They finished second (to Israel) in 1964 in a very small tournament played in Israel. Until Israel switched to European football, their existence always caused friction in Asia, and in 1964 both Iran and Pakistan withdrew from the qualifying tournament as they were unhappy about the final venue, giving India a free ride. When India qualified again, for the 1984 Asian Cup, they finished second in a qualifying group played entirely in Calcutta. This time, as their qualification was via the Challenge Cup, all matches were again played in India, (India had exemption from qualifying for this competition). India fared poorly in the 2010 Challenge Cup, but this can be excused as the side entered was clearly a youth squad. They are the current holders of the South Asian Federation title after an eight team tournament played in Bangladesh in December 2009. Since 2006, the coach of India has been Bob Houghton, the former coach of Hastings United, Maidstone United, Malmo FF (twice), Ethnikos Piraeus, Bristol City, Toronto Blizzard, Al-Ittihad (Saudi, twice), Örgryte, Zurich, Colorado Rapids, China, Shanghai Pudong, Sichuan, Zhejiang, Uzbekistan and Changsha Ginde coach. Houghton was player-coach to Hastings at the age of 23, and has since been coaching for 40 years, without ever being out of work for any long period of time. He is most well known for taking Malmo to the 1979 European Cup final. India’s build up to the tournament has been marred by injury to Bhutia and by internal dissent, which has seen team manager Pradip Chowdhary resign (for a lot of Asian clubs, team manager is a non-coaching job). The last couple of India’s warm up friendly games were not played, just highlighting the problems that what may well be the weakest team in the competition is facing.
Bahrain is the smallest of the countries that have qualified for the finals. It is an Island in the Gulf, off the coast of Qatar. Until 1878, Qatar was actually ruled from Bahrain. I have noticed that part of the new rail systems mentioned in the Qatar bid document for 2022 World Cup is a rail link to Qatar. Bahrain qualified from a group including Japan, Hong Kong and Yemen with ease, winning their first four games. The first home game saw them beat Japan 1-0. They came close to reaching the 2010 World Cup finals as well, again finishing second to Japan in the first stage of qualifying, and then finishing third (to Japan and Australia) in the second phase. They did lose all four games against Japan and Australia at this stage. This gave them a play-off against Saudi Arabia (two draws) which was won on away goals and a final play off when they were beaten by a single goal and New Zealand went through. This is their fourth Asian Cup, but also their third successive time in the finals. Only in 2004 did they make it beyond the group stage, ending up in fourth place. In the Gulf Cup, they have three times been runners-up, but have never won the title and they had a poor time in November when they were bottom of their group, behind UAE, Iraq and Oman. As with the hosts, Bahrain have been dogged by controversy over the number of naturalised players in their squad, which will probably include Jaycee John Okwunwanne, Abdullah Omar Ismail and Abdulla Baba Fatadi, all of which are African born, naturalised Bahrainis now playing in European Leagues. Okwunwanne plays in Turkey for Eskişehirspor, while the others are with Neuchatel Xamax.
The coach, Salmar Sharida is a Bahraini national, who has spent some time as coach as Pakistan, and as successful as anyone has been for them. Returning to Bahrain he coached Muharraq. This has always been the most successful club in Bahrain, and under Sharida they had their best ever season, winning all the domestic trophies, and the AFC Cup, (the only time any Bahrain club has won international honours).
Australia switched to the AFC in 2005, so this is their second Asian Championship. In the qualification for 2007, they countered little difficulty, winning three out of four games against Bahrain and Kuwait after the Lebanon withdrew, but they found the finals more difficult than they had expected after a 1-1 draw with Oman, they lost 3-1 to Iraq but scraped into the second round with a 4-0 defeat of Thailand. They went out in the quarter-finals to Japan in a penalty shoot out.
Qualification for the 2010 World Cup and 2011 Asian Cup were taking place simultaneously, and this demonstrated the difference between Australia’s full squad, and the team they put out for matches played on non-official international dates, when players from the European Leagues were not available. By March 2009, the Australian record (half way through the final round of qualifying for the World Cup) was won 3, drawn 1 with the dropped points being away to Japan, but in the Asian tournament they had drawn 0-0 with Indonesia, and lost at home to Kuwait. Fortunately, they did not play another Asian cup game until the World Cup qualification was successfully completed. With European based players available, they beat Oman home and away and following a draw in Kuwait, they scraped through to the finals with a 1-0 win over Indonesia.
Australia’s coach is the German, Holger Osieck. He has previously coached in Germany, Turkey, Canada and Japan and his successes include the CONCACAF Gold Cup for Canada in 2000, and the AFC Champions League with Urawa Red Diamonds in 2007. Of all the teams in the Asian Cup, Australia have the most players based in Europe. Eight play in England, and three in Turkey. Only four members of the team play in the Australian League (and one of those is with Wellington Phoenix in New Zealand).
Finally, we have the South Korean team. As their qualification was automatic after finishing third in 2007, they played the 2010 World Cup without having to worry about Asian affairs. In the East Asian Championship at the start of 2010, they lost 3-0 to China but this was with a squad very different to the one used in the summer for the World Cup. Not surprisingly, the squad for this Asian Cup bears more relationship to the World Cup squad than the EAFF title. A dozen of the players play in the Korean League, and three in Japan. 33 year old veteran, Lee Young-Pyo has 120 caps for the side, and now plays for Al-Hilal in Saudi Arabia. He has previously played with Spurs, PSV and Borussia Dortmund. Five of the squad currently plays in Europe. The uncapped 18 year old Son Heung-Min has broken into the Hamburg side this season, scoring three times in just seven appearances. Lee Chung-Yong is established at Bolton, while the expected star is Park Ji-Sung of Manchester United. Two of the Koreans play for Celtic, meaning the Scottish side could be the one that feels the effects of this competition most strongly. This pair includes Cha Du-Ri, son of Cha Bum-Kun formerly of Bayer Leverkusen, and a member of Korean side in the 1986 World Cup. Coach Cho Kwang-Rae has always been based in Korea, and won the Korean League title when coaching Anyang Cheetahs in 2000.
FIFA ranks Australia at 26th World-wide, which places them number 1 in Asia, while South Korea are the third in Asia, or 40th overall. I find this strange, and believe that South Korea should actually be ranked top of the list, ahead of Japan and Australia. Bahrain’s rankings are 7th/93rd and present a possible spanner in the works for the others, especially if they are slow to acclimatise. India are down at 142nd/23rd, and I must agree with FIFA’s representation of them as the weakest team in the competition.