By Pablo Bateson
We will reflect on 12 days of football which has enthralled over 395,000 spectators (locals and visiting fans) and hundreds of millions of television viewers right across Asia. Here is a snapshot of some of the main outcomes from the four groups and 24 matches.
1. Korea Republic
Supporters and observers of the Socceroos were beginning to believe that the longer term strategy of coach Ange Postecoglou was paying dividends, and then came another reality check at the hand of Korea Republic in the heat and humidity of Brisbane.
Australia had been most impressive in their comprehensive demolitions of Kuwait and Oman over the previous week and yet subsequently faltered against a more resilient opponent. Even allowing for these conditions as well as a pitch that was grossly sub-standard, a failure to convert several clear cut chances created cost them a chance to finish in top spot and a potentially much kinder run towards the goal of reaching the final.
In comparison, the other teams Oman and Kuwait seemed well out of their depth even if the former was unfortunate to not get at least a draw from their opening game against the “Taeguk Warriors”. Korea Republic appeared to be gradually working into the tournament, although they were to next face a tough adversary in traditional rivals Uzbekistan. The latter was denied a qualification spot for the Brasil 2014 World Cup to miss out only on slightly inferior goal difference behind Korea at the final group stage in 2013.
On the positive side for the Socceroos, staying in Brisbane for the quarter final meant continuity at their base camp and a slight advantage compared with China in terms of being better acclimatised to the deal with the conditions. The suspension of key central defender Matthew Spiranovic for a second yellow card was a blow. However with no major injury concerns and eight different goal scorers across the first two games there was every reason to be optimistic for a bounce back result to be achieved on Thursday.
1. China PR
3. Saudi Arabia
4. DPR Korea
China surprised most including their own fans by topping the group undefeated, including convincing wins over Saudi Arabia and then Uzbekistan. However, the price to pay for such dominance would be to meet the host nation in the quarter-final. “Zhong Guo Dui” (Team China) has a well balanced team on the rise and huge support from the large Chinese-Australian, expat population and travelling fans as demonstrated in particular in Canberra against Korea DPR.
The latter (“Chollima”) never really looked like seriously challenging any of their group opponents, and appeared to be a shadow the side that qualified for the 2010 World Cup.
Going into the last game, it was left for the “White Wolves” of Central Asia and “Al Sogour Al Akhdar” (The Green Falcons) to battle for second spot. The Uzbeks ran out worthy winners 3-1 and were quietly confident of their abilities to upset the Koreans at the Melbourne Rectangular Stadium on Thursday.
1. IR Iran
Securing that crucial top spot went literally ‘right down to the wire’ between west Asian rivals Iran and UAE at the Brisbane Stadium. A dramatic stoppage time added winner sunk “Al Sukoor” (The Eagles) after they had dominated possession over the game.
In all three games, the UAE had provided an expansive style of football to entertain their fans and neutrals alike. An opening game 4-1 win over Gulf neighbours Qatar demonstrated just how far their football development has come in recent years. They would approach a quarter-final encounter against Japan without fear and belief of being able to deliver an upset.
For Qatar, they had such high hopes for the tournament especially on the back of winning last year’s AFC U-19 Championship held in Myanmar. “Al Amar” (The Reds) never recovered from their opening defeat, and rounded off the campaign with a frustrating loss to Bahrain who did just enough to win as their opponents missed numerous clear cut scoring chances.
Iran’s reward would be to face arch rivals Iraq in the quarter final at Canberra, and the opportunity to secure a semi-final place versus either the Korea Republic or Uzbekistan.
As expected the “Samurai Blue” dominated the group from the onset and confirmed their pre-tournament status as favourites to lift the trophy. The draw had been kind and they appeared to play with much in reserve for long periods of all three games. After thumping a hapless Palestinian side in Newcastle, they outplayed Iraq in Brisbane. The latter had previously overcome Arab neighbours Jordan 1-0 to already all but secure second spot for progression.
“Al Nashama” (The Brave) needed to beat Japan in the final group game to achieve a top two finishing spot, and fell well short as they lost 0-2 to the reigning champions at the Melbourne Rectangular Stadium in front of full house.
Despite the passionate support of their proud fans living in the host nation, “Al Muntakhab” (the National Team) bowed out of the tournament having been soundly defeated in all three matches.
In their final match at Canberra, Palestine showed much great resilience in the first half against Iraq and yet eventually succumbed 0-2. “Osod Al Rafideen” (the Lions of the Two Rivers) confirmed their second spot and will be advantaged by staying in the national capital for the quarter final on Friday.
Summary and predictions
Japan, Iran, Korea and China were all convincing group winners and their associated active fans also proved to be magnificent as the “12th man” to further inspire and lift the teams.
Although finishing second in the group, the Socceroos confirmed they will give this tournament a real shake in pursuit of their first major international title since the first senior men’s national team game in 1922. A dream final with Japan is no longer possible, and yet a win over China would set up a mouth-watering semi-final in Newcastle. If that were to happen, then an appalling lack of foresight by the organisers over a year ago will prevent perhaps tens of thousands of fans from being able to be at the game.
Of the other sides, UAE has impressed the most. Regardless of their subsequent results at this tournament they have a strong foundation to build upon for the Russia 2018 World Cup qualification campaign to begin in June of this year.
There have been 61 goals in the first 24 matches and incredibly without a draw so far in a major tournament, beating the previous record of 18 set at the 1930 FIFA World Cup.
Predictions for the remainder of the tournament remain consistent with the Asian Cup preview published in Goal Weekly in early December.
However, as life-long supporter of the Socceroos, here’s hoping that Australia can prevail to win the title to become the number one team in Asia.
This article is reproduced with the permission of Goal Weekly magazine in Australia