The Asian Cup will kick off on January 9th as the hosts, Australia, look to start on the right foot against West Asian hopefuls Kuwait. 32 matches and almost 3 weeks later a new champion will be crowned. Champions Japan will look to retain the trophy and add to their record 4 titles. Korea will look to bounce back after a disappointing World Cup. Uzbekistan will try to begin to realize their potential at this level. West Asian hopefuls Iran, under the guidance of Carlos Quieroz, will look to break a four-decade drought. Established Asian players, including Keisuke Honda, Shinji Kagawa, Javad Nekounam, Zheng Zhi and Tim Cahill will be known to most followers. Youngsters like Iraq’s Ali Adnan, UAE’s Ali Mabkhout, Iran’s Alireza Jahanbakhsh and Australia’s Tommy Oar will be looking to etch their names in Asian football history.
With that said, we’ve had the opportunity to speak to a few Asian football experts, whose countries will be taking part at the tournament, for their views and predictions on what lies ahead.
Football Palestine, which can be found on Follow @FutbolPalestine, was founded in 2008 with the intent of providing accurate and detailed information about the Palestine national football team to an international audience. Their network, includes a blog, YouTube, and Twitter, is operated by Abdel-Rahman Hamed & Bassil Mikdadi and has been featured in prominent outlets such as Sports Illustrated, Slate, Metro, and BBC. We had the opportunity to have a brief chat with them about the Palestinian national team and Asian Cup in general.
Ahmad El Hassan, your national team manager, recently had to come out to defend himself after backlash from the fans over some of his selections. What happened?
He made some controversial decisions with his squad selection and was probably guilty of not communicating his reasons for making these decisions. El Hassan’s got a very rigid approach – he’s the boss and he wants the players to know that. For example, Hilal Musa helped Palestine qualify and he missed out on the squad because he didn’t show up to training in October (he had a broken hand). The fans are even more upset over the fact that three foreign-based center backs have been left out (Omar Jarun, Javier Cohene, and Daniel Kabir Mustafá) for unknown reasons. Cohene has since come out and said that injury will not allow him to participate although the PFA claimed that he didn’t respond to their calls and emails. Fans were really excited to have forward Matias Jadue on board and he would have been in the squad but some administrative error resulted in his nationality switch being filed incorrectly.
Considering the backlash, it seems that people back home are taking your participation seriously. What are the expectations for the side?
On paper, this is a very difficult group and the fans are aware of that. That said, Jordan are not the same team they were 18 months ago under Adnan Hamed and Iraq are not displaying the form that crowned them champions in 2007. Both sides haven’t won a game since March and their new coaching appointments are still trying to communicate their ideas to the players. It seems to the fans that if we could escape the game against Japan with a narrow loss then there would be enough points on the table in the next two games. The squad announcement has tempered expectations but with Ashraf Nu’man- maybe the dream scenario can play out.
Was it surprising that you qualified in the first place?
Yes and No. Preparation for the Challenge Cup was less than ideal. Palestine didn’t play any warm-up games, and the Challenge Cup was scheduled on non-FIFA matchdays. A whole host of strikers were ruled out due to injury. That said, Palestine were always favored to make it out of their qualifying group and the way they played in the Challenge Cup it was quite evident that they were the best of the bunch. Palestine has been in the ascendency since late 2011 and Asian Cup qualification via the Challenge Cup path seemed like an attainable goal.
For those who are not familiar with the side tell us what its main strength and weakness is?
We don’t have a lot of options in attack. Mahmoud Eid is the only out-and-out striker in the squad and over the past couple of years the lack of a goal-scorer means Palestine can sometimes struggle to translate good build-up play into results. Mahmoud Eid’s arrival might go some way towards solving this problem. The strength, despite the big name absences, is the defense and by the looks of it Ahmed El Hassan will have the side set up to frustrate the opposition (and the neutral fan).
Does this side have a future or is it just a flash in the pan?
Interesting question. Qualification represents an opportunity for Palestine, even if results don’t go their way in Australia the big game atmosphere will only make them better. Their FIFA ranking will most likely land them in Pot 2 for 2018 World Cup qualifying. This time around they’ll be able to leverage home-field advantage (they have yet to lose at home). I get the feeling that the opportunity is there but a lot depends on administration. The PFA needs to put the right people in charge in order to harness the potential of the players.
Which Palestinian player do you think we should watch out for in Australia?
Abed Jaber. He’s only 21 and at this time last year he wasn’t even on the national team radar but he has single-handedly solved Palestine’s problems at left back.
Which player from the other 15 sides do you think can emerge as a star at this tournament?
Sardar Azmoun of Iran.
How do you think the West Asian sides will do?
Well there are 10 of them so the deck is stacked in our favor. I think this tournament will be won by Australia or Japan and I don’t think that the West Asians in Group A or Group B will advance. My main reason for pessimism is due to the fact that too many national teams are coming into this tournament with new coaches.
Finally, who will win the 2015 Asian Cup?
On paper, Japan should run away with this competition. They are the most talented team in Asia by a country mile. That said, I think Australia – backed by their vociferous home support – could nick it.
Behzod Nazarov is an expert on Uzbeki football and is a leading journalist and writer in his homeland. He combines that role with his role as media officer of notable club Pakhtakor of Tashkent. He can be found on twitter on Follow @BehzodNazarov
Uzbekistan joined the AFC in 1992, and almost immediately won the Asian Games football tournament 2 years later. Many expected more success to follow but it hasn’t. Why?
Uzbekistan has a lot experienced players who played in the old USSR championship. When they became older we faced problems and couldn`t reach positive results. We faced problems with football schools from a grass-roots level as our best footballers had been educated outside our territories. We have also ben unlucky in crucial moments due to refereeing mistakes against us.
Maxim Shatskikh and Alexander Geynrikh were the stars of the past. Does this team have players on their level?
I think Odil Ahmedov, Server Jeparov, Vitaliy Denisov and Aziz Haydarov can play at a very high level. Denisov is one of the main players at Lokomotiv Moscow. Aziz is captain of Al Shabab. They could show good performances in Australia.
How good is Odil Ahmedov?
I think he is main player of team. He has been playing very well in the Russian Premier League and Europa League during the last few years. If he plays well, the national team can achieve good results.
What is the side’s main strength and weakness?
Main strength is teamwork and midfield of the side. But we have had problems in defense in the last few matches. We are not very strong when it comes to one to one battles on the pitch. We are not so good physically if we compare ourselves with Australia, Japan or Korea Republic.
How far can Uzbekistan go in the tournament?
We can go to the quarterfinals. But at that stage we may face Korea Republic or Australia. All depends on that match.
Is there any team you’d like to avoid?
Australia, Korea Republic and Japan, they are the strongest teams of Asia.
Which Uzbek player do you think will emerge as a star during the Asian Cup?
We have two young stars – Sardor Rashidov and Jamshid Iskanderov. They can show their potential in Australia. Denisov, Ahmedov and Jeparov showed their levels in previous matches.
Which non-Uzbek player do you think will emerge as a star during the Asian Cup?
So many potential stars. Japan, Korea and Australia have a lot of star players, Iran, Saudi Arabia, UAE and Qatar can play good football. Omar Abdulrahman of UAE and Bualim Khoukhi of Qatar might be the new stars of Asian football.
Who will win the tournament?
I think it will be Australia or Japan.
What are the expectations back home for Team Melli considering the side hasn’t been champions for almost 40 years?
I believe a group stage exit is unfortunately more likely than the title for us this time. However, considering the draw, a semifinal exit would be quite realistic.
Some critics argue that the side is too old and Carlos Queiroz is focusing too much on short-term results. Do you agree with them?
Looking at the chaotic planning by the Iranian football federation, nothing but short-term plans can be implemented by Queiroz. Considering that we will only have played two real friendly matches since the World Cup when we’ll kick off our Asian Cup campaign versus Bahrain, Queiroz can only rely on the core of the team that represented Iran well in Brazil. That he exchanged 10 of the players in his squad since then is even quite experimental already, although it has to be noted the starting 11 will barely be affected by those changes.
Iran’s style of play is no easy on the eye over the last couple of years, but it seems to get results Do you agree with the approach?
The style of play dramatically changed in summer 2013 when Queiroz successfully implemented a very defensive approach. I generally agree with any approach that gets results, the question is if we can approach Bahrain and the UAE the same way we approached South Korea, Nigeria and Argentina.
What is the side’s main strength and weakness?
The main strength is the extreme tactical discipline and excellent defensive organization. Weakness is lack of creativity upfront which in my opinion stems more from the defensive approach and therefore lack of bodies and options upfront due to the lack of risks taken.
If you could avoid one side during the tournament who would it be and why?
Japan, they have the best squad and if their new coach doesn’t do too much wrong, they should be the strongest team.
The side’s preparations has been marred by incompetence by organizers. If Iran gets knocked out at the first stage, what would the consensus be?
My consensus would be the same as for the last decades, that Iran needs a complete overhaul of the complete footballing system, from grassroots over IPL, political framework (eg. military service) to funding of IFF. However, the consensus of the decision makers in Iranian football would be that a good foreign coach is a waste of money.
Any young Iranian player that can emerge as a star in the tournament?
Alireza Jahanbakhsh. He is skillful, energetic and has learned to overtake responsibility at NEC. Only things that could prevent him are the lack of support upfront or the fact that he, like in world cup, could not be part of the starting lineup.
Which non-Iranian player do you think will emerge as a star during the Asian Cup?
I think this could be Son Heung-Min’s big tournament.
What will Queiroz’s legacy be if he parts company with Team Melli at the end of the Asian Cup?
Probably that all the people saying Iran’s football naturally is an attacking one and you can only be successful with such an approach were wrong. Although that case is probably stronger now than after a post Asian Cup departure of Queiroz, which most likely would take place after an unsuccessful tournament.
Who will win the tournament?
If you haven’t been following Asian football closely, then the 2015 Asian Cup is probably a good starting point. The continent’s major tournament, alongside the African Cup of Nations, provides good value for money when it comes to entertainment. The 2015 edition takes place in Australia as the Socceroos aim to become the first hosts to lift the trophy since Japan did it last in 1992. They will have their work cut out against the winner of 4 of the tournament’s last 6 editions, Japan, as well as 2-time winners Korea, 3-time winners Iran, fallen giants and 3-time champions Saudi Arabia, and the winners of the 2007 edition, Iraq. Emerging powers such as Uzbekistan, UAE and Qatar may also have championship ambitions.
The first round is divided into four groups, with seeded sides with Australia, Team Melli of Iran, Japan and Uzbekistan all seeded. On paper, Groups B and C look evenly balanced, making it difficult to pick the sides that could progress. Group A sees the hosts go up against Korea, Kuwait and Oman. Whilst Group D should see Japan finish first and be joined by Jordan or, more likely, Iraq. Palestine makes its tournament debut and will probably be happy to be there, although it’s had the most stringent of preparations for the competition. Group B should see Uzbekistan progress whilst Saudi Arabia, North Korea and China will probably fight for second spot. Group C is an all-West Asian affair with Iran heading UAE, Bahrain and Qatar. Team Melli does not enjoy playing teams from the Middle East and has been upset in recent years against sides such as Lebanon, Bahrain and Jordan and has been perennially held by Qatar too. This group may go into the final day match-ups before the winners or runners-up are known. In terms of progression, Groups A & B as well as C & D are paired in the Quarter Finals.
Korea and Iran remain traditional power-houses in Asian football, but, especially in the case of the Iranians it is largely based upon reputation. Team Melli last won the tournament in 1976 and only came close once in 1996 when the exciting team led by Ali Daei, Khodadad Azizi and Karim Bagheri finished 3rd after losing on penalty kicks against eventual winners Saudi Arabia in the semi-finals. Nevertheless, Iran remains West Asia’s strongest challengers for the title. If you are looking for a dark-horse then Uzbekistan is destined for far more success than it has achieved so far in Asian football. They have an exciting and attacking line-up and have a genuine superstar in Odil Ahmedov, of Russia’s Krasnodar, who provides the heart-beat of the side.
If you were a betting man then its best to put your money on the safe choice of Japan. Australia will be buoyed by the home grown but Ante Posteloglou is currently overseeing the rebuilding of an aging Socceroos side. This tournament may come a little early for the Australians in terms of genuinely challenging the Japanese but over the course of 90 minutes (or 120 for that matter) anything can happen.
What You Should Know
• This is the 16th edition of the Asian Cup
• Only 6 times has the hosts won the tournament
• Ali Daei is the record goal-scorer in the finals tournament with 14 goals during 3 editions
• 15 hat tricks have been scored throughout the tournament with 6 of them scored by Iranians and 3 by Japanese players
• 4 Brazilian managers have led teams to win the tournament in the past
• The 2015 Asian Cup may break China’s attendance record from the 2005 edition (31,877 per game)
• Iran and Korea are appearing for a record 13th time
• Palestine is appearing for the first time
• Iran has won the most matches at the Asian Cup (34) and scored the most goals (112)
• Japan has won the tournament for a record 4 times
• Only Australia, North Korea, Uzbekistan, Bahrain, Iraq, Palestine & the UAE will be managed by local head coaches
Players to Watch (Key Man / Emerging Talent)
Australia – Mile Jedinak (Crystal Palace) / Tommy Oar (Utrecht)
Korea – Ki Sung Yeung (Swansea) / Son Heung Min (Leverkusen)
Oman – Emad Al Hosni (Saham) / Abdul Aziz Muqbali (Fanja)
Kuwait – Badr Al Mutawa (Qadisiya) / Yousef Nasser (Kazma)
Uzbekistan – Odil Ahmedov (Krasnodar)/ Sardor Rashidov (Bunyodkor)
Saudi Arabia – Naser Al Shamrani (Al Hilal) / Naif Hazazi (Al Shabab)
China – Zheng Zi (Guangzhou) / Zhang Linpeng (Guangzhou)
North Korea – Pak Nam Chol (Sisaket) /Pak Kwang Ryong (Vaduz)
Iran – Ashkan Dejagah (Al Arabi) / Alireza Jahanbakhsh (NEC Nijmegen)
UAE – Omar Abdul Rahman (Al Ain) / Ali Mabkhout (Al Jazira)
Bahrain – Fawzi Ayesh (Al Seleya) / Mohammed Al Tayeb (Al Najma)
Qatar – Khalfan Ibrahim (Al Sadd) / Boualim Khoukhi (Al Arabi)
Japan – Keisuke Honda (Milan) / Gaku Shibasaki (Kashima)
Iraq – Younes Mahmoud (No Club) / Ali Adnan (Caykur Rizespor)
Jordan – Amer Shafi (Al Wahdat) / Khalil Bani Attiah (Al Faisaly)
Palestine – Ashraf Nu’man (Al Faisaly) / Abed Jaber (Hilal Al Quds)
The Final Four
Australia, Uzbekistan, Japan & Iran