English flavour to Asian Games football
It might not be the FIFA World Cup™ but plenty is at stake in the Asian Games football tournament, highlighted by a clash between sides coached by two former England team-mates.
Qatar go into the event for Under-23s as champions after beating Iraq 1-0 in the gold medal match at Doha four years ago. Former Senegal and UAE coach Bruno Metsu is now in charge and will be expected to match that achievement in China ahead of the AFC Asian Cup on home soil in January.
The 24-team Asiad tournament kicks off on Sunday, five days before the formal opening of the 16th Asian Games, with the teams divided into six groups of four. The top two and four of the best third-placed teams advance to the round of 16.
Qatar was handed a relatively easy draw, grouped with Singapore and India, but also with Kuwait, who are fresh from winning the West Asian Football Championship, beating Iran in the final.
A highlight of the early rounds will see Thailand face Pakistan, with the match to have a strong English flavour. Former Manchester United captain Bryan Robson is charge of Thailand while ex-Spurs and Chelsea defender Graham Roberts was recently appointed the temporary Pakistan coach.
Roberts' first game in charge will be against his old England colleague, who is hoping his side recover form after their disappointing failure to qualify for the Asian Cup. "It's a bit of an experience for me but I'm looking forward to it," Roberts told the BBC. "Against Robbo - well, we'll both be wearing shinpads on the halfway line."
Roberts admits he knew nothing about his team when he agreed to take the job last month, and enlisted the help of former Pakistan captain Zesh Rehman, who is currently playing for League Two side Bradford City. "At the moment they're saying that they turn up and it's lackadaisical. I've spoken to five or six of them and the players I've checked out are all keen and they want to play," he said.
Korea Republic, who are without Celtic midfielder Ki Sung-Yueng after the Scottish club refused to release him, are pitted against neighbours Korea DPR. South Korea has a strong squad with coach Hong Myung-Bo calling up AS Monaco's Park Chu-Young as one of his three over-age players as they seek to end a 24-year gold medal drought.
Iraq's progress to the final four years ago was a highlight of the Games and brought the war-wracked country virtually to a standstill, providing a moment of national unity for the divided nation. Since then, however, the squad has been unable to recapture its form, failing to qualify for the 2010 FIFA World Cup.
Among the women, China looks to be the team to beat, with Li Xiaopeng now at the helm. The 35-year-old, who spent most of his playing career at Shandong Luneng, was one of the key players at China's only FIFA World Cup appearance in 2002. Korea DPR, the defending Asiad champions, should also be in the hunt, as will Japan, the beaten finalists four years ago.