Preview: 2015 AFC Asian Cup – Quarter-finals
SOUTH KOREA – UZKEKISTAN 60%-40%
22 January 2015, 18:30 local time (UTC+11), Melbourne Rectangular Stadium, Melbourne.
A traditional power in Asian football, that probably has had better squads in the future: speed and techninc are their main strenghts, while the lack of phisicity is the main weakness, so en effective team play will be essential to try to win the Title. The starter GK is Jung Sung-ryong (Suwon Bluewings), while the most notable defenders should be the centre-backs Kwak Tae-hwi (Al-Hilal, Saudi Arabia) and Kim Young-gwon (Guangzhou Evergrande FC), and the full-backs Cha Du-ri (FC Seoul, he has spent the majority of his career in Europe, including spells with Eintracht Frankfurt, Mainz 05, SC Freiburg and Celtic FC), Kim Jin-su (TSG Hoffenheim) and Park Joo-ho (Mainz 05). The midfield is probably the best part of the team, having a lot of quality: there are two good playmaker such as Koo Ja-cheol (Mainz 05), and the Captain Ki Sung-yueng (Swansea City AFC, he previously also played for Celtic FC and Sunderland), and few very good winger, such as Nam Tae-hee (Lekhwiya SC, Qatar, but he also spent two seasons in French Ligue 1 with Valenciennes), Lee Chung-yong (Bolton Wanderers FC) and, most of all, Son Heung-min (Bayer 04 Leverkusen), a player that can provide several goals to the team and that surely is one of the best of the Competition. The lack of a continuous and prolific striker at international level has often been an issue for this National Team, and this year should make no difference: Lee Keun-ho (El-Jaish, Qatar), who has scored quite regularly in South Korea and Japan, should be the most reliable option, but he has never proved himself outside Asia. The manager is the notorious former German International Ulrich “Uli” Stielike.
We have already said that Uzbekistan is very unlucky in WC Qualifiers, because they are usually eliminated at the Play-offs just before the Final Stage, but that means they are the fifth or the sixth strongest team in Asia, and indeed they have always reached at least the Quarter Finals since 2004 (QF in 2004 and 2007, SF in 2011). The level of Uzbek Championship is more than decent, Pakhtakor Tashkent, Lokomotiv Tashkent, Nasaf Qarshi and Bunyodkor being the best clubs, and moreover there are few footballers who play or have played in the Russian and Ukrainian top tiers. The starter GK is Ignatiy Nesterov (Lokomotiv Tashkent), while in the defence the main names are Islom Tukhtakhodjaev (Lokomotiv Tashkent), Anzur Ismailov (Changchun Yatai, China) and, most of all, Vitaliy Denisov (FC Lokomotiv Moskva). The midfield can rely on some quite experienced midfielders, such as Azizbek Haydarov (Al-Shabab, UAE), Odil Ahmedov (FK Krasnodar, Russia), Sanzhar Tursunov (Vorskla Poltava, Ukraine), and Timur Kapadze (Lokomotiv Tashkent), while Jamshid Iskanderov (21, Pakhtakor Tashkent) looks an interesting youngster. The Captain Server Djeparov (32, Seongnam FC, South Korea), who has been the Asian Footballer of the Year in 2008 and 2011, is probably the strongest player in the squad: he’s an attacking midfielder or second striker who can score a lot of goals and, wherever he plays, he will be a key element for the Uzkek attack, in which there won’t be Maksim Shatskikh anymore (he’s still acive at 36, be he retired from National Team in 2004), so Bahodir Nasimov (Padideh, Iran, a former Rubin Kazan’s and PFC Neftchi Baku’s striker), or the very interesting prospect Igor Sergeev (Pakhtakor Tashkent) will have to provide some goals. The Head Coach is the Uzbek Mirjalol Qosimov.
AUSTRALIA – CHINA 70%-30%
22 January 2015, h. 20:30 local time (UTC+10), Brisbane Stadium, Brisbane.
This squad is weaker than the one we saw in South Africa in 2010, and much weaker than the one we had seen in Germany in 2006, that was a very good team: in Brazil they ended the difficult Group B with 0 points as expected, anyway they didn’t disappoint too much, causing several troubles both to Chile and Holland.
In the past several Australian prospects were used to go to play abroad in order to improve themselves, now a lot of them stay in the local A-League, whose level has increased (it should be the same of the second tier in Italy, England, Germany etc.), but is still far from the top European and South American leagues, while several other Australian footballers move to other Asian Countries (Australia is a member of AFC), in which they are most wanted, because in many Asian leagues one of the few foreign players, that are allowed to be signed, must come from another AFC Federation, and so they seldom are still called up for National Team.
Excluding Robbie Kruse (Bayer 04 Leverkusen), there are no players from top European clubs: they usually play for mid-table teams in top Leagues, or for top-teams in medium Championships. Mathew Ryan (Club Brugge, best goalkeeper in the last Belgian Championship) is favorite on Mitchell Langerak (Borussia Dortmund’s second GK) to defend the Socceroos’s goal, while the main defenders should be Matthew Spiranovic (Western Sydney Wanderers FC), James Davidson (WBA), Chris Herd (Aston Villa), and the full-backs Ivan Franjic (Torpedo Moskva) and Aziz Behich (Bursaspor).
The midfield is probably the strongest part of the team with Mark Milligan (Melbourne Victory), Matt McKay (Brisbane Roar), the Captain Mile Jerdinak (Crystal Palace), the offensive James Troisi (Zulte Waregem), almost a second striker, and the wingers Mark Bresciano (Al Gharafa), and Tommy Oar (FC Utrecht).
On the front, Robbie Kruse (Bayer 04 Leverkusen) is probably the best player of the team, while the younger Tomi Juric (Western Sydney Wanderers) and Mathew Leckie (FC Ingolstad O4) can be interesting alternatives. Tim Cahill (New York Red Bulls) needs a separate chapter: he’s 35, but he’s probably still the most important element of the team, surely the most experienced, and he can play both in the midfield and in the attack, so Head Coach Ange Postecoglou will be able to choose among several options.
All the footballers play in Chinese Super Legue, whose level is more than decent, considering that there are quite strong foreigners, but this team should have no chance to win this Competition, and surviving the Group Stage would be quite a big achievement.
Zeng Cheng (Guangzhou Evergrande FC) should be the starter GK, but Wang Dalei (Shandong Luneng) could play as well, while the key element of the defence should be the centre back Zhang Linpeng (Guangzhou Evergrande FC) and the rigth back Wu Xi (Jiangsu Sainty).
In the midfield probably there are the best players of this squad: the Captain Zheng Zhi (Guangzhou Evergrande FC, a former Celtic FC and Charlton Athletic player), Liu Jianye (Jiangsu Sainty), Yu Hanchao (Guangzhou Evergrande FC, left winger), Hao Junmin (Shandong Luneng, a former Schalke 04 right winger/attacking midfielder), Yu Hai (Guizhou Renhe, a former FC Vitesse left winger) and Zhang Chengdong (Beijing Guoan, a former Uniao Leira, Beira-Mar and Eintracht Braunschweig right winger).
The attack is probably one of the biggest issues of this squad, because it looks that there are no very strong strikers: Gao Lin (Guangzhou Evergrande FC) isn’t bad and he’s the most prolific one, while Yang Xu (Shandong Luneng) should be his replacement and has a quite good goal scoring average with the National Team.
The manager is the French Alain Perrin, who has manager few important clubs in Ligue 1, such as OM, OL and Saint-Étienne.
IRAN – IRAQ 65%-35%
23 January 2015, h. 17:30 local time (UTC+11), Canberra Stadium, Canberra.
After playing a quite honorable World Cup in Brazil (out at Group Stage after a draw with Nigeria, a last-minute-defeat against the Finalist Argentina and a defeat with Bosnia), being quite dangerous at least in the first two games, Iran is doubtless the favorite team to win this Group and has concrete chances to become Champion as well. After missing 2010 World Cup, Iran, manager by the Portoguese Carlos Queiroz, strenghtened a bit its squad also thanks to the “come back” of some Iranians that were born or grown up abroad, but have Iranian parents, such as Ghoochannejhad and Dejagah, while the GK Davari and the full-back Beitashour were called up for World Cup, but not for Asian Cup.
The GK Alireza Haghihi (FC Penafiel, on loan from Rubin Kazan), is a starter in Portugese first tier and played a quite good WC, so no doubt he will defend the Iranian goal, while the strenghts of the defence should be the experienced centre-back Jalal Hosseini (32, Al-Ahli SC, Qatar) and the full-backs Khosro Heydari (Esteghlal) and Mehrdad Pooladi (Al-Shahania, Qatar). The midfield is quite experienced with the Captain Jawad Nekounam (34, Atlético Osasuna, Spanish second tier, 145 games with Iran), Masoud Shoaej (30, Al-Shahania, Qatar, with a good experience in Spanish La Liga with Atletico Osasuna), Andranik Teymourian (31, Tractor Sazi FC, a former Bolton Wanderers, Fulham and Barnsley midfielder), and Ehsan Hajsafi (Sepahan FC). The forward is probably the strongest part of the team, and surely the most “international” one, because almost all the elements play abroad: the wingers in Carlos Queiroz’s 4-2-3-1 are Ashkan Dejagah (Al-Arabi, Qatar, a former player of Hertha BSC, Vfl Wolfsburg and Fulham FC), maybe the best player in the squad, and the very interesting prospect Alireza Jahanbakhsh (21, NEC, Dutch second tier), who is showing very goog things in Holland, but often starts from the bench with Iran. The starting striker should be Reza Ghoochannejhad, a.k.a. “Gucci” (Kuwait SC, a former Standard Liege, Charlton Athletic forward), who scored several goals in Holland and Belgium, while Karim Ansarifard (Atlético Osasuna) and the interesting prospect Sardar Azmoun (20, Rubin Kazan) are other options. Anyway Ghoochannejhad, Azmoun and Hajsafi could all play on the wings, while Ansarifard could be an attacking midfielder as well.
This team is very interesting: they won this Competiton in 2007, and it looked a big shock, but, to be honest, they have always reached at least the Quarter-finals since 1996 (5 editions).
Few footballers play in Europe, one even in USA, while the Iraqi teams are performing quite well in AFC Cup (the second club competition in Asia), so the local Championships isn’t awful as well: there are stronger squads in this Tournament, they shouldn’t be able to become Champions, but they could reach (again) the Quarter-finals, and maybe the Semi-finals as well.
This team is clearly the youngest of this Competion, as there are 19 of 23 players that were born no before than 1991: the reason of that is that the successfull squad that reached the second place at the 2012 AFC U-19 Championship and the fourth one at 2013 FIFA U-20 World Cup has almost entirely been transferred to the Senior National Team by the manager Radhi Shenaishil, a former Iraqi International.
All of the goalkeepers are very young, and that’s quite strange, because usually GKs are among the most experienced players: Jalal Hassan (23, Erbil SC) is the older one, and he should fight for a place in the goal with Mohammed Hameed Farhan (Al Shorta SC).
Salam Shaker (28, Al Shorta SC) is the most experienced defender, while CB Ahmad Ibrahim Khalaf (Ayman Club, UAE) and the left backs Ali Adnan Kadhim (21, Çaykur Rizespor, Turkish first tier), who is both one of the strongest and one of the most promising element of the team and he is son e niece of important footballers (especially his uncle), and his replacement Dhurgham Ismail (20, Al Shorta SC) are names to note.
In the middle of the pitch the most interesting players should be Yaser Kasim (Swindown Town FC, English third tier), Saad Abdul-Amir (Erbil SC), the winger Ahmed Yasin (Örebro SK ,Swedish first tier) and the attacking midfielder Humam Tariq (Al Dhafra SSC, UAE), who is only 18 and has already collected 26 caps with Iraqi NT.
The Captain Younis Mahmoud (31, unattached) was the protagonist of 2007 triumph and is the most experienced player of the squad (51 goals in 132 matches), and still one of the best ones, even if he’s currently without club: he spent the majority of his career in the Middle East, but we really would have liked to see him playing in Europe to test his level somewhere else.
Alaa Abdul-Zahra (27, Al Shorta SC), who can also play as attacking midfielder, and the US-born Justin Meram (Columbus Crew SC, MLS, American first tier) are the main other offensive options.
JAPAN – UNITED ARAB EMIRATES 75%-25%
23 January 2015, h. 20:30 local time (UTC+11), Stadium Australia, Sydney.
This is surely one of the big favorite to win the Title, that would be theit fifth AFC Asian Cup (Japan won 4 of the last 6 Editions): J. League is one of the best League in Asia, moreover there are some footballers playing in the best European leagues, mostly in Germany, but also in Italy and England.
2014 World Cup ended quite disappointingly (just 1 draw with Greece and two deafeats), so the manager Alberto Zaccheroni was sacked and was replaced by the experienced Mexican Javier Aguirre, who has managed twice his National Team, leading it to two WC Final Stage (2002 and 2010), and few important clubs, such as Atlante FC, CF Pachuca, CA Osasuna, Atlético Madrid, Real Zaragoza and RCD Espanyol.
Having some physical limits, the Japanese NT has to play a very fast and very technical football, and that often results in quite enjoyable style of play.
GK Eiji Kawashima (Standard Liege), a regular starter in the Belgian Championship, should be quite reliable: in the defence the sides are well patrolled by Yuto Nagatomo (FC Inter)and Gōtoku Sakai (VfB Stuttgart), while Atsuto Uchida (FC Schalke 04) was ruled out by an injury just before the start of the Competition; while in the centre the key player is Maya Yoshida (FC Southampton).
In the midfield there’s a lot of experience with Captain Makoto Hasebe (30, Eintracht Frankfurt, before he had played for Wolfsburg for years), Yasuyuki Konno (31, Gamba Osaka) and, most of all, Yasuhito Endō (34, a symbol of Gamba Osaka), who is a midfielder very charismatic, complete and creative, an excellent playmaker that can tackle and score as well, especially on set pieces, that anyway in the National Team will be probably taken by Keisuke Honda, while the star Shinji Kagawa (Borussia Dortmund) is younger but not less experienced at international level.
But the most dangerous players of the team are probably the wingers Keisuke Honda (AC Milan), Hiroshi Kiyotake (1. FC Nürnberg) and Takashi Inui (Eintracht Frankfurt), who can all score goals and assist the teammates.
A weakness of this team has often been the lack of a top striker that is able to score regularly at international level: after playing few season as a winger, Shinji Okazaki (1. FSV Mainz 05), who has scored quite regularly with NT, is playing as central forward again and he’s having a good season in Bundesliga, so he will be crucial, otherwise Keisuke Honda could be adapted in this position and play as “false nine”.
UNITED ARAB EMIRATES
This National Team had its golden period in the 90’s, as they played at 1990 World Cup in Italy and got a fourth (1992) and a second (1996) place in AFC Asian Cup.
The squad members play all in the local League, that is one of the most competitive in Asia, mostly thanks to some good foreigners.
The Captain is the short-tempered GK Majed Naser (Al Ahli Club), while the centre-backs Walid Abbas (Al Ahli Club) and Hamdan Al-Kamali (Al Wahda, he also had two not very successful spells in Europe at OL and Valletta FC) are the best defenders.
The CM Amer Abdulrahman (Baniyas SC) and the wingers Omar Abdulrahman (Al-Ain FC) and Ismail Al Hammadi (Al Ahli Club) are the most notable midfielders, while the attack is maybe the strongest part of the team. Ahmed Khalil (Al Ahli SC) will probably be the starting striker, considering that he still quite young (23), but he has already an high goal-scoring-average both with his club and the NT: Saeed Al-Kathiri (Al-Wasl FC) and Ali Mabkhout (Al-Jazira S&C Club) are the best alternatives.
The Emirati Mahdi Ali is the Head Coach.