Big guns leave it late
The AFC Asian Cup has been perennially dominated by the continent's traditional powers, and the 2007 edition has proven to be no exception so far. Despite some early upsets, all the big guns bounced back in their last two group matches to successfully reach the last eight.
While the confederation's leading six teams on the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking, namely Japan, Iran, Australia, Uzbekistan, Korea Republic and Saudi Arabia, all secured their passage to the knockout stage, so too did Iraq and Vietnam, who were the surprise packages of the first phase. Impressively, Iraq overcame a formidable Australia to top their section, and Vietnam, one of the four co-hosts, managed to navigate their way beyond a pool which featured the defending champions Japan and Western Asian sides United Arab Emirates and Qatar.
Two sides that have been left rueing premature elimination are China and Oman, the respective seventh and eighth highest positioned Asians on the Ranking, who were ultimately punished for a lack of consistency.
The opening set of matches saw the gulf between the top teams and the outsiders significantly narrowed, as a number of heavyweights struggled against an unfancied opponent. In fact, Iran were the only heavily-favoured outfit to pocket three points, which arrive courtesy of a 2-1 win over Uzbekistan.
Australia entered their first ever AFC Asian Cup finals as one of the favourites for gold. However, they required a last-gasp equaliser from Tim Cahill to snatch them a 1-1 draw with Oman on their curtain raiser. Worse was to follow for Graham Arnold's star-studded cast, who fell to a 3-1 defeat by Iraq, although a 4-0 victory over Thailand was enough for the Socceroos to advance,
Saudi Arabia, who are aiming to clinch a fourth continental title, also needed a late push to see off brave Indonesia. Having shared the spoils with Korea Republic in their opening game, coach Helio dos Anjos' men had Saad Al Harthi to thank for netting the winner in stoppage time after the rivals had spent an entire 70 minutes deadlocked at 1-1. Boosted by the hard-fought victory, Saudi Arabia swept past Bahrain 4-0 to seal their place in the last eight as group winners.
While Iraq's 3-1 victory over Australia evoked surprise, it was Vietnam who produced the biggest shock of the group stage. Under Austrian coach Alfred Riedl, they became the only co-hosts to reach last eight, having sunk United Arab Emirates 2-0 before holding Qatar to a 1-1 draw.
Indonesia also started brightly with a 2-1 reverse of the previous edition's semi-finalists Bahrain, which was followed by a narrow loss to Saudi Arabia. But in front of 90,000 vociferous home supporters they lost out to Korea Republic, who progressed at their expense. Meanwhile, Thailand, needing just a point against Australia, dominated the second half after falling 1-0 behind, but their experienced rivals scored three times in the last ten minutes to end their challenge.
All eyes will be on Japan and Australia when the two most fancied sides cross swords in a quarter-final clash at the Rajamangala National Stadium, Bangkok on 21 July. The contest will be a repeat of their 2006 FIFA World Cup™ clash, when Australia rallied from a goal behind to win 3-1.
Pim Verbeek's struggling Korea Republic will travel from Jakarta to Kuala Lumpur for a reunion with their old nemesis Iran, at the hands of whom they suffered a 6-2 defeat in the Asian Cup 1996. For their part, Saudi Arabia may boast a 5-0 reverse of Uzbekistan in the Asian Cup 2000, but the Central Asians avenged the loss with a 1-0 victory in the previous edition of the tournament.
Perhaps the most eagerly anticipated tie will pit Iraq against Vietnam in a battle of two teams who have already exceeded expectations. Iraq will enter the game in upbeat mood, but coach Alfred Riedl's men will be able to count on a large following in their neighbouring country.
Winner QF1 v Winner QF2 (Kuala Lumpur)
Winner QF3 v Winner QF4 (Hanoi)