Contenders aiming for glory
The 14th edition of the AFC Asian Cup gets under way this
weekend, with four past winners vying for another continental crown
against a tropical backdrop.
For the first time, this year's tournament is co-hosted by four nations - namely Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, and Vietnam - and the usual contenders will be hoping to continue their dominance. Three-time winners Iran, Japan, and Saudi Arabia as well as Korea Republic, who won the first two editions, have dominated the Asian stage, winning 11 titles between them so far.
However, the traditional powerhouses - plus new boys Australia - will have to survive the hot and humid weather conditions and home advantage of the South Eastern countries, to avoid becoming victims of upsets and surprises and heading back home earlier than expected.
Shaping up for the finals
All eyes in Group A are sure to be on the tournament debutants, Australia, who arrive at the Asian showpiece widely tipped to claim gold at their first attempt.
Coach Graham Arnold has at his disposal a formidable, full-strength squad boasting the likes of Mark Viduka, Harry Kewell, Tim Cahill and Lucas Neil, and another of the Aussies' key men, goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer, believes their showing at Germany 2006 has raised the bar for the star-studded Socceroos. "There's a high expectation from everyone concerned, and rightly from ourselves as well," Schwarzer said. "It's going to be a difficult competition and conditions are very harsh. But we've got enough quality to win the tournament."
Australia will certainly be expected to dominate a section comprised by Oman, Iraq and the Thai co-hosts, although with the memory of a humbling 2-0 defeat in Kuwait last year still fresh, Arnold's side will do well to take absolutely nothing for granted.
Reigning champions Japan begin their title defence in Group B.
Coach Ivica Osim has been trying to revamp the national team with a
experimental squad since taking charge last summer. But the Bosnian
decided to recall star players such as Shunsuke Nakamura of Celtic
and Frankfurt forward Naohiro Takahara ahead of the Asian finals,
as they hope to win their third consecutive continental title.
Japan are set to play Asian Games gold medalists Qatar and Gulf Cup winners United Arab Emirates next week before their last group game against hosts Vietnam. With their side undergoing a generation shift, their aspirations for another title are likely to be challenged from the outset.
The situation is more or less the same for the Iranian coach Amir Ghalenoei, whose team are yet to find a replacement for legendary striker Ali Daei. However, Team Melli are led by midfielder Mehdi Mahdavikia and the joint top-scorer at China 2004 Ali Karimi, while Vahid Hashemian is expected to perform just as well as he did during last year's FIFA World Cup.
Iran, who won three straight championships from 1968 to 1976, are in Group C with Uzbekistan, Malaysia, and the runners-up of last edition China. For their part, China are looking to put the disappointment of three years ago behind and aiming for their third appearance in the final.
Despite having suffered three defeats in five friendlies in a build-up to the finals, coach Zhu Guanghu is banking on the five players who are plying their trade with foreign clubs: Sun Jihai (Manchester City), Dong Fangzhou (Manchester United), Li Tie (Sheffield United), Zheng Zhi (Charlton), and Shao Jiayi (Energie Cottbus). The latter two will pull the strings in midfield, while Dong has been finally given an opportunity to emerge from the shadows of former talisman Hao Haidong.
Former champions face off
In Group D, Saudi Arabia have been drawn with hosts Indonesia, last edition's semi-finalists Bahrain, and Korea Republic. The Saudis are led by Brazilian Helio dos Anjos, who replaced his compatriot Marcos Paqueta after the Gulf Cup in March.
Striker and skipper Yasser Al Qahtani is arguably the key player, while Hussain Sulamani and former AFC Player of the Year Hamad Al Montashari are also vitally important for Saudi Arabia, who are hoping to improve on their early exit from the group stage three years ago. The Saudis arrived in south east Asia last month and geared up with straight wins over UAE and Singapore, although they were held to 1-1 draws with Oman and Korea DPR respectively earlier this week.
Korea Republic, meanwhile, will be without the English Premiership trio of Park Ji-Sung (Manchester United), Lee Young-Pyo (Tottenham Hotspur) and Seol Ki-Hyun (Reading) who have been ruled out due to injury, as well as the skipper Kim Nam-Il who needs more time to recover from a recent operation.
Nevertheless, coach Pim Verbeek is hoping to fill the gaps in his favoured 4-3-3 formation with his current crop of young players. Lee Keun-Ho of Daegu FC was called up to the squad after a series of impressive performances for the Olympic team, while Jeonbuk Motors winger Yeom Ki-Hun and Seongnam Chunma's central midfielder Son Dae-Ho are also included as well.
The Taeguk Warriors warmed up with two recent victories against fellow finalists Iraq (3-0) and Uzbekistan (2-1), and are aiming to bring the elusive trophy back home after a 47-year wait. In order to do this, however, their opening match against Saudi Arabia on Wednesday will be crucial.
Watch the AFC Asian Cup LIVE!
The AFC Asian Cup is readily available on TV in Asia, the Middle East, Oceania and North America, but now fans in Europe, Africa and Latin America can watch every single match live on their home computer!
It costs as little as €3.95/£2.49/$4.95 a day to stream the action direct from Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam. For more information click here.