2015 Asian Cup preview: Japan shooting for fourth title in five tournaments

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The 2015 Asian Cup, the 16th edition of the Asian Football Confederation’s (AFC) quadrennial international tournament, kicks off in Australia this Friday, January 9. Winners of this month’s Asian Cup will represent the AFC at the 2017 Confederations Cup, the tune-up tournament a year ahead of the 2018 World Cup, in Russia.

Japan, the most prolific winners of the Asian Cup (four times, all within the last six tournaments), are once again favorites to be crowned champions. Other past Asian Cup winners include South Korea (twice), Isreal, Iran (three times), Kuwait, Saudi Arabia (three times) and Iraq.

The final will be played on Saturday, January 31 at 3:30 am ET.

Asian soccer is unquestionably on the rise, just as it is here in the United States, so this year’s tournament is as good of a time as any to take the plunge and begin really familiarizing yourself with players who have long since been playing for a number of Europe’s biggest clubs.

HOST CITIES, VENUES, SCHEDULE

Stadium Australia — Sydney — 84,000 capacity
Hunter Stadium — Newcastle — 33,000 capacity
Suncorp Stadium — Brisbane — 52,500 capacity
GIO Canberra Stadium — Canberra — 25,000 capacity
AAMI Park — Melbourne — 30,000 capacity

Full schedule of group stage fixtures

GROUP A

source: Getty ImagesAustralia
Players to watch: F – Tim Cahill (right), New York Red Bulls; M – Mile Jedinak, Crystal Palace; M – Mark Bresciano, Al-Gharafa
Prediction: Group A runners-up after losing South Korea, and defeating Oman and Kuwait. Decent upside to reach the semis as hosts.

 

Oman
Players to watch: GK – Ali Al-Habsi, Wigan Athletic; F – Abdulaziz Al-Muqbali, Fanja; F – Amad Al-Hosni, Saham
Prediction: Third place, Group A. They’ll not be blown out in any of their group games and they’re get their day in the sun in the group stage finale against Kuwait.

 

source: Getty ImagesSouth Korea
Coach: Uli Stielike
Players to watch: M – Son Heung-min (left), Bayer Leverkusen; M – Ki Sung-yueng, Sunderland; M – Lee Chung-yong, Botlon Wanderers
Prediction: Group A winners after defeating Australia and Oman, and drawing Kuwait. Likely semifinalists with a date against a weak Group B’s runner-up in the quarters.

 

Kuwait
Players to watch: F – Bader Al-Mutawa, Qadsia; D – Musaed Neda, Al-Oruba; GK – Nawaf Al Khaldi, Qadsia
Prediction: Fourth place, Group A. A fairly young Kuwaiti team struggles this time around, but gains valuable experience in the process.


GROUP B

source: APUzbekistan
Players to watch: M – Server Djeparov (right), Seongnam; D- Vitaliy Denisov, Lokomotiv Moscow; M – Timur Kapadze, Lokomotiv Tashkent
Prediction: Group B winners. Not the toughest group in the world, and finishing top means avoiding South Korea in the quarterfinals. That should be all the motivation the Uzbeks need.

 

Saudi Arabia
Players to watch: F – Nasser Al-Shamrani, Al-Hilal; D – Osama Hawsawi, Al-Ahli; M – Saud Kariri, Al-Hilali
Prediction: Third place, Group B. A relatively inexperienced Saudi squad, compared to triumphant years gone by. Their opener vs. China could decide all.

 

source: Getty ImagesChina
Players to watch: M – Zheng Zhi (right, at front), Guangzhou Evergrande; D- Zhang Linpeng, Guangzhou Evergrande; F – Yang Xu, Changchun Yatai
Prediction: Group B runners-up. Three points in the opener vs. Saudi Arabia goes a long way to easing Chinese worries. A loss and they’re in trouble.

 

North Korea
Players to watch: F – Pak Kwang-ryong, Vaduz; M – Jong Il-gwan, Rimyongsu; D- Cha Jong-hyok, Wil 1900
Prediction: Fourth place, Group B.


GROUP C

source: Getty ImagesIran
Coach: Carlos Queiroz
Players to watch: M – Javad Nekounam (right), Osasuna; M – Ashkan Dejagah, Al-Arabi; F – Sardar Azmoun, Rubin Kazan
Prediction: Winners, Group C. Less than a semifinals appearance and they’ll be disappointed, and rightly so.

 

Qatar
Players to watch:
 M – Khalfan Ibrahim, Al Sadd; D – Bilal Mohammed, Al-Gharafa; M – Magid Mohamed, El Jaish
Prediction: Fourth place, Group C.

 

source: Getty ImagesUnited Arab Emirates
Players to watch: F – Ali Mabkhout, Al-Jazira; M – Omar Abdulrahman, Al-Ain; F – Ahmed Khalil, Al-Ahli
Prediction: Runners-up, Group C. UAE could handle their business and be through after games one and two before they have to bother with Iran. Then top spot in the group is on the line to see who avoids Japan.

 

Bahrain
Players to watch: M – Mohamed Salmeen, Al-Muharraq; M – Faouzi Aaish, Al-Sailiya; F – Ismail Abdul-Latif, Al-Muharraq
Prediction: Third place, Group C. The first two games present extremely tough challenges, but a winnable game in third place offers a chance to leave Australia with a good taste in their mouth.


GROUP D

source: Getty ImagesJapan
Coach: Javier Aguirre
Players to watch: M – Shinji Kagawa (right), Borussia Dortmund; F – Keisuke Honda, AC Milan; F – Shinji Okazaki, Mainz
Prediction: Group D winners. Anything other than a finals appearance will be deemed a disappointment, if not being crowned champions once again. The attacking talent is there for a another trophy, but as we saw at the World Cup last summer, the defense is more than a bit shaky.

 

Jordan
Coach: Ray Wilkins
Players to watch: F – Abdallah Deeb, Al-Riffa; GK – Amer Shafi, Al-Wehdat; M – Saeed Murjan, Al-Ramtha
Prediction: Third place, Group D.

 

source: Getty ImagesIraq
Players to watch: F – Younis Mahmoud, unattached; D – Ali Adnan, Rizespor; Humam Tariq (left), Al Dahfra; F – Justin Meram, Columbus Crew
Prediction: Group D runners-up. The Iraqis have moved on from the golden group that won the 2007 tournament and replaced big names with rising youngsters sprinkled throughout Europe. Tariq, 18, is a future star.

 

Palestine
Players to watch: F – Ashraf Nu’man, Al-Faisaly; M – Khader Yousef, Taraji Wadi Al-Nes; Hussam Abu Saleh, Hilal Al-Quds
Prediction: Fourth place, Group D.

La Liga Roundup: Messi, Barcelona stunned by inspired Granada (video)

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Granada’s shocking 2-0 win over Barcelona and subsequent rise to the top of the table headlines Saturday’s La Liga action.

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Granada 2-0 Barcelona

Not even Lionel Messi, who made his season debut on Saturday, was able to save Barcelona against a red-hot Granada.

Granada, who are off to their best start in their 88 years of existence, had a perfect night in front of their supporters, convincingly getting past a Barcelona that dominated possession, but lacked the offensive ingenuity needed to score.

Barcelona’s defense wasn’t noteworthily robust, either.

Two minutes in, the newly promoted side scored through a headed goal from Ramon Azeez, following a defensive turnover from Junior Firpo.

Unable to record a shot on target in the first half and looking to wakeup a dormant attack, Barcelona brought on wonderkid Ansu Fati and Lionel Messi at halftime. Despite the duo connecting on several occasion and generating a shot on target, it wasn’t enough to get past Rui Silva.

In the 66th minute, following video review, substitute Alvaro Badillo converted from the spot, handing Granada their third win of the season.

Atop of La Liga, Granada set their sights on Real Valladolid, while Barcelona, who are off to their worst league start in 25 years, host Villarreal at Camp Nou.

Atletico Madrid  0-0 Celta Vigo

For a second consecutive week, Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid dropped points, drawing with Celta Vigo 0-0 at Wanda Metropolitano.

Tied with league leaders Granada and Sevilla with 10 points, the alarm bells are far from going off in Madrid. However, as Saturday’s performance showed, los Colchoneros are having trouble finishing chances this season, despite fielding an attack with the likes of Joao Felix, Diego Costa and Alvaro Morata.

In five games, Atletico have managed to score only five goals, six fewer than leaders Granada. Against Celta, Atletico registered 20 shots, five on target, but were unable to crack a stellar Ruben Blanco, who registered five saves.

Leveled with Granada and Sevilla, Atletico Madrid look to get back into winning ways as they take on RCD Mallorca. Elsewhere, Celta Vigo, who have won win after five games, host Espanyol next.

Elsewhere in La Liga

Villarreal 2-0 Real Valladolid

Levante 0-0 Eibar

Almeyda, Wondolowski sent off in Quakes’ fall against Atlanta (video)

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The game in 200 words (or less): Melodrama took center stage in Atlanta United’s 3-1 win over the San Jose Earthquakes, as Matias Almeyda, Chris Wondolowski and Cristian Espinoza were all sent off on Saturday. Josef Martinez, six games away from tying Lionel Messi’s world record for most consecutive goals, left the field in 79th minute following an injury, ending his MLS-record run at 15 games. Playing with 10 players from the 34th minute onwards, the Quakes held on to the draw up until the 90th minute. Unmarked inside the box, Emerson Hyndman rocketed the ball past Daniel Vega, who recorded nine saves throughout the night. In stoppage time, Gonzalo “Pity” Martinez was rewarded for his stellar performance with a goal of his own. With a game at hand, Eastern Conference leaders, NYCFC, are three points ahead Frank De Boer‘s side. The Quakes, on the other hand, have internal fires to put out as they have lost six of their last eight, and are only a point above the red line with three games to play.

Three moments that mattered

27′ — Great run by Espinoza, greater ball by Vega  — Daniel Vega and Cristian Espinoza were players that San Jose were desperately missing last season. This sequence says it all.

 

90′ — Emerson Hyndman wins it for the Five Stripes   — Hyndman, with no one near him, seals three points for the home side.

 

90′ + 2 — Martinez takes advantage of broken San Jose  — Martinez’s goal was only salt in San Jose’s fresh wound.

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Man of the match: Gonzalo “Pity”  Martinez

Goalscorers: Meram (4′), Guzan (27′ – OG), Hyndman (90′), Martinez (90′ + 2)

FIFA sees no obstacles for women to attend games in Iran

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ZURICH — Soccer’s governing body FIFA says an inspection visit to Iran has shown “no noteworthy operational obstacles” to lifting the country’s 40-year ban and letting women attend a World Cup qualifying game next month.

After meeting government and soccer officials in Tehran this week, FIFA says it will work with Iran’s soccer body to also open domestic league games to female fans.

FIFA wants Iran to end its ban on women entering stadiums which breaches international soccer statutes prohibiting discrimination.

Global attention on the ban followed the death this month of a 29-year-old activist, Sahar Khodayari, who set herself on fire outside a courthouse. She had been detained for dressing as a man to enter a soccer stadium in Tehran and faced six months in prison.

Ahead of Iran hosting Cambodia at the 78,000-capacity Azadi Stadium on Oct. 10, FIFA says the visit on Thursday focused on “international relations, security and ticketing matters.”

Iranian officials were told of FIFA’s “firm and clear position that women need to be allowed to enter football matches freely” with tickets sold to as many who wanted to attend.

FOLLOW LIVE: Atlanta v. Quakes, Galaxy v. Impact on a busy MLS Saturday

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Eight games in seven hours, now that’s a jam-packed MLS Saturday.

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Things kickoff with Matias Almeyda’s San Jose Earthquakes visiting red-hot Josef Martinez’s Atlanta United, and comes to a close in Los Angeles, where league leaders LAFC host Toronto FC and LA Galaxy, who look to continue moving up in the Western Conference standings, host Montreal Impact.

In between, the New England Revolution look to remain in the Eastern Conference playoff picture as they welcome Kyle Beckerman and Real Salt Lake, while the Chicago Fire hope to jump level with the Revs in the standings as they take on FC Cincinnati at Nippert Stadium.

Saturday’s full MLS schedule

Atlanta United v. San Jose Earthquakes — 3:30 p.m. ET

Vancouver Whitecaps v. Columbus Crew — 5 p.m. ET

New England Revolution v. Real Salt Lake — 7:30 p.m. ET

FC Cincinnati v. Chicago Fire — 7:30 p.m. ET

Sporting Kansas City v. Colorado Rapids — 8:30 p.m. ET

Houston Dynamo v. Orlando City — 8:30 p.m. ET

LAFC v. Toronto FC — 10:30 p.m. ET

LA Galaxy v. Montreal Impact — 10:30 p.m. ET