Asian Cup, Group Preview.

The four groups for Asia 07 all have the same general format – there is one team that is a clear top seed, a host team which certainly appears to be the weakest of each quartet, and two other teams expected to vie for the second place in each of the quarter-finals. In each group, the host nations’ main stadium is staging five group matches, but a second stadium is required to allow the final games to kick off simultaneously. In each case this game has a high chance of being to settle a place in the next round.

The holders, Japan – who also won the tournament in 2000 and in 1992 are one of the big four, and will start favourites. Iran won the tournament in 68, 72 and 76 – two of which were played in Iran, the other in Thailand. Since then they lost in the semi-finals five times, (out of seven tournaments), three on penalties. South Korea have played in the semi-finals in two of the last three tournaments, while Australia are the new boys, playing in Asia for the first time, but justify their position as a ‘seed’ by reaching the knock out stages of the World Cup, and beating Japan to get there.

In three of the four groups, the ‘middle two’ teams are from the Arabian Gulf, and played in January’s Gulf Cup. Saudi Arabia and Bahrain played each other then, with Saudi coming out top, but both teams were beaten in the semi-finals. Iraq and Qatar finished below Saudi and Bahrain in group games, while Oman and UAE met each other in both the opening game and the final, suggesting these are the best of the Arabs at the moment. When it comes to past tournaments, the Saudi team won in Singapore in 1984, and then again in 88 and 96 – two tournaments in Arab lands (Qatar and UAE).

Group A – Playing their first Asian tournament, the Australians will be the feature of many headlines, and with a primarily European based squad featuring most of those players that reached the knock out stages of last years World Cup, they will start as favourites. In the group stage, one feels the only things that could work against them are complacency and climate. The competition for second side should be between Iraq and Oman – and with the turmoil in Iraq, it is no surprise that Oman are arriving in a better state. Both teams have changed coaches since the Gulf Cup in January – but Oman reached the final, so they are unlikely to consider this a failure. Iraq have appointed Jorvan Vieira, a Brazilian with considerable experience as coach in Oman, Kuwait and Qatar – as well as a period with the Malaysian under-20 squad, meaning he knows the region well. Oman have appointed Gabriel Calderon, a member of the Argentinian squad in 1982 and 1990, and coach of the Saudi Arabian team through the qualifying games for 2006 World Cup (they got through – but they were always expected to). He was sacked before the finals started. Meanwhile, while Oman are not entered into the current West Asian tournament, Iraq have been disappointing – drawing with an Iranian team missing most of their Asia Cup squad and only beating Palestine by 1-0. Where does that leave the home side? – their squad is all based in the region, and mostly in Thailand itself, and features the veterans Kiatsak Senamuang and Therdsak Chaiman. They will need to be on the ball quickly if they are to succeed, but they are still the most likely of the homesters to make it to the quarter-finals.

Group B – To some extent, this is similar to group A, with a clear favourite (Japan) two Arab sides who should compete for second spot (Qatar and UAE) and a weak home team. Apart from Japan, who I expect to cruise into the quarter finals, I consider this to be the weakest group, as neither of the Arab countries really have the potential to go all the way. This is despite recent successes for UAE in the Gulf Cup and Qatar in the last Asian games. Both these teams won tournaments on their own turf, and these days, the Asian games is an age limited tournament. Under their charismatic French coach, Bruno Metsu. – I expect the UAE to go through to the quarter finals, but no further. Metsu wanted the naturalisation of Brazilian Alexander Oliveira to go through before the tournament started, but his bosses and the countries politicians ruled against him. Qatar may be more interested in winning friends in their bid to stage the next competition than in winning games, but if they have any success, their own record of naturalising players will come to the fore, one expecs the Uruguayan Sebastian Soria, and the Senegalese pair or Abdullah Koni and Saqar Ahmed to feature strongly for them. Few people, in even their own country will have any expectation that Vietnam can avoid finishing bottom of the group

Group C – This is one of the more interesting groups. I hope I get to see the Iranians at some stage, if only to see if the support and press corps can continue the same degree of paranoia whenever a referee’s decision goes against them. By the end of the last Asian cup, though, I was beginning to believe their hype. This is an important tournament for Iran. They surely have the team and the talent, but can they produce the goods. One can ignore some of the recent results – the team that crashed so badly in a recent friendly in Mexico, and is now failing to inspire in the West Asian championships will be very different when it takes to the field in Malaysia. A lot will depend on the German based duo of Mehdi Mahdavikia and Ali Karemi – both of whom may be wondering if this is their last chance to pick up this trophy. Expectations must be to at least reach another semi-final, and any failure to do so will be held against the coach, Amir Ghalenoei, who has been successful in his home country, but is having his first attempt on the international stage. The hosts in this groups, Malaysia will simply fail to satisfy the expectations of home fans. Malaysia has a successful league, damaged by its frequent changing of the rules, always supposedly to benefit the national side, and never succeeding in doing so. The locals would settle for success in local competition, but four successive semi-final defeats in the South-East Asian ‘Tiger’ Cup demonstrates the problems they face.
Although the Chinese still complain bitterly about the refereeing decisions that they believe cost them the title in their home final three years ago (ignoring the generosity of refereeing that got them to the final), there are few that expect a repeat in this seasons tournament. Failure to reach the World Cup finals in Germany added to the sense of defeatism for the national team. More resources are now given to sports bidding for Olympic gold, and it is safe to say that in men’s football, the Chinese do not expect a medal. I still expect them to pass through the qualifying group, at the expense of a Uzbekistan side which I admit to knowing little about.

Group D – The whole of South Korea got behind the team in the run to the World Cup semi-final when they were at home. The feel good factor for the national side carried on to Germany, where their fans where in top form when I met up with them to see them beat Togo. This was the only victory by an Asian side in Germany (as Australia still represented Oceania until the competition finished), but it was not enough to see them through. The Koreans will feel hampered by the news that three of the players from the English Premiership will be missing through injury (although I bet Park Si-Jung is fit by the time his club, Manchester United play FC Seoul on July 20). This will be a tough group, as Saudi Arabia almost certainly feel aggrieved that their record in reaching the last four World Cups has not kept them as one of the big four in Asia – but in the last three World Cups, they have achieved just two draws, in the last Asian Cup they did not escape the group stage, and they were also disappointing in the Gulf Cup last January. They need to get something from this tournament just to prove they are not a spend force, while Bahrain provided a breath of fresh air in the Chinese tournament, and will be trying to build on this. This may well be the strongest of the four groups, and that will not help the cause of the host nation. The Indonesian League is split into two, so as the vast distances of the nation do not have to be travelled for league matches. There are still long distances in a country with so many islands and three time zones. The Indonesians, like Thailand have at least qualified for the last three tournaments, (the Malaysians can Vietnamese have missed all of them) – but they need to pull off something special to get through.

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