There were smiles and sighs of relief in Kuala Lumpur today as the draw for the AFC Asian Cup 2007 brought good news for both the holders and the widely-tipped tournament debutants.
For Japan, the reigning champions, there was satisfaction after the draw pitted them against two western Asian sides, Qatar and United Arab Emirates, along with co-hosts Vietnam, while Australia also fared well, landing Oman, Iraq and Thailand in their first Asian Cup finals.
Not so fortunate were Korea Republic, who found themselves drawn against fellow FIFA World Cup™ finalists Saudi Arabia, Indonesia and a dangerous dark horse, Bahrain. China, the previous edition's runners-up, will also do well to emerge from a section that boasts the always-powerful Iran along with Uzbekistan and co-hosts Malaysia.
The tournament, which is being jointly hosted by Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam, is to be staged between 7 and 29 July.
Socceroos well placed to progress
Though Asian Cup debutants, Australia found themselves seeded for the draw alongside fellow Germany 2006 participants Japan, Korea Republic and Iran after the AFC decided that the classification should be based on the teams' standing in the October FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking .
The Socceroos' performances in Germany certainly ensure that, while they are the new kid on the Asian block, they will start next summer's competition among the favourites, having comfortably topped their qualifying section and booked their spot at the finals ahead of any of their prospective rivals .
Graham Arnold's side should not, however, underestimate Oman, who pulled off a stunning 2-2 draw against Iran in their Asian Cup debut two years ago and were only edged out by a single goal in their match with Japan. Iraq also fared well in the previous edition, making the last eight after overcoming top seeded Saudi Arabia, although Arnold - whose side have faced, and beaten, the Iraqis before - expressed quiet confidence in Australia's prospects.
"I'm quite happy with the pool we are in," he said following the draw. "Thailand are the highest ranked of the host countries, at 125. Oman are a bit of an unknown quantity for us but we know a lot about Iraq. We played them in Australia two years ago and also at the Athens Olympics."
Japan face confident Qatar
Australia may be confident, but having lifted the trophy in 1992, 2000 and again in 2004, Japan will travel with the express aim of a third consecutive title and their fourth overall.
Even co-hosts Vietnam's home advantage is unlikely prove too significant against experienced players who showed their composure and class in 2004 by keeping their cool to defeat hosts China 3-1 in front of a fanatical home crowd. Nevertheless, UAE and Qatar have made it clear that they are not traveling merely to make up the numbers, with the former having made the final in 1996 and the latter high on confidence after taking gold against all expectations at the recent Asian Games in Doha .
None will provide Japan with an easy defence of their title, and speaking after the draw, JFA technical director Takeshi Ono acknowledged as much. "We are up against some tough teams," he said, "and we will need to take it one game at a time."
Ranked in the third seeding tier, China were always destined to face the continent's big boys, yet it will still register as a shock to their fans to see that they now face Iran and Uzbekistan.
Having condemned China to heartbreaking defeats on many crucial occasions, Iran have a well-established reputation as something of a nemesis, while ever-improving Uzbekistan fancy their chance of repeating the 2-0 defeat they inflicted on the Chinese in the 1996 finals.
Yet, despite this, China can still draw inspiration from reaching the final in 2004, and that was certainly the attitude being adopted by their German-based midfield maestro, Shao Jiayi. "Iran are without doubt the group favorites but we have proved we can play against them," said the Energie Cottbus midfielder. "Uzbekistan are a well-organised team playing a European style, but we will catch them through our quick attacks and by running at them."
Clash of the titans
Having beaten Korea Republic in both legs in the final qualifying round for 2006 FIFA World Cup, Saudi Arabia look to have a mental edge over the eastern Asians in Group D.
The Saudis also enjoyed a memorable qualifying campaign for this Asian Cup, winning their first five matches, including a 1-0 victory over Japan that helped them top the group.
However, while acknowledging that their record against the Saudis does not bode well for Korea Republic's prospects, KFA official Shin Man-Kil vowed that the team will travel with every intention of competing for the prize. "We haven't won the Asian Cup since 1960 so that is our main target," said Shin. "But we are in a very tough group and we don't have a very good record against Saudi Arabia, so it will be a challenge for us."
Indonesia will do well to cause Group D's heavyweight duo any undue concern, but anyone underestimating Bahrain will do so at their peril given that this is a team that succeeded in marching all the way to the semi-finals in 2004.