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.
Australia 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.
South 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.
Uzbekistan 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.
China 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.
Iran 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.
United 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.
Japan 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.
Iraq 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.
Well it’s been a lively start to Wednesday, as some of the world’s best made the score sheet early. As it stands, Iran will not only pick up their first ever loss to Bosnia and Herzegovina — giving BNH its first World Cup win — but miss the knockout round due a draw between Argentina and Nigeria.
3′ – Lionel Messi officially makes Group F’s second spot open for competition as he buries a rebound into the upper part of the net. Argentina, 1-0
4′ – Ahmed Musa wastes no time responding, as the 21-year-old CSKA Moscow player walks in from the left of goal to bury one. 1-1.
45+1′ – There’s only one Lionel Messi. A gorgeous, bending free kick past the wall from 25 out restores Argentina’s lead and Iran’s hope.
16′ – If Nigeria get through, someone needs to buy Vincent Enyeama’s meals for the rest of the tournament. The Nigerian keeper is perhaps the only reason outside of Musa’s goal that the nation may still go through.
31′ – Argentina continues to pressure as it’s done all day but Rojo heads wide off a strong cross.
After holding Argentina to a dull draw in the first half, then playing out of their minds in the second half, Iran will be devastated to have left Belo Horizonte without a point. The magical Messi came through for Argentina once more, scoring in injury time to give his side their second win.
The first half of Argentina – Iran was rather dull. Iran defender Jalal Hosseini put two headers off target, while the supposed firepower of the albiceleste managed just two shots on target. Despite Alejandro Sabella returning to Argentina’s favored 4-3-3 formation, the combined powers of Sergio Agüero, Gonzalo Higuaín, Ángel di María and yes, even Lionel Messi could not break through the iron-clad Iran defense.
After the restart, Iran started to come out of their shells – and managed to give Argentina a couple of decent scares.
In the 52nd minute, Iran finally broke through with a fantastic chance. There was a good chance Sergio Romero might have been caught napping, as the Argentina goalkeeper had little to do throughout the match, but his reflexive save kept out a sharp shot from Reza Ghoochannejhad.
Shortly thereafter, the referee waved away Ashkan Dejagah’s appeals for a penalty. He tangled with Pablo Zabaleta on the edge of the area, and likely had a good case – Argentina were lucky to get away with that one.
In the 67th minute, Dejagah came knocking once again. Romero was forced to fingertip his strike from distance over the bar, and Argentina breathed once more.
Messi had a great chance to put his chance ahead, but his free kick ruffled the side netting. Moments later, Ángel di María tried his luck, but Alireza Haghighi was there to stifle the shot. Finally, with fifteen minutes left to play, Sabella elected to make changes, bringing on Rodrigo Palacio and Ezequiel Lavezzi for Sergio Agüero and Gonzalo Higuaín.
Yet Argentina still couldn’t break through. Indeed it looked like the best chance of the final minutes would fall to Iran, with Ghoochannejhad breaking free to go one on one with Romero. His shot was beaten away by Romero, however.
Then, in the game’s dying minutes, Messi performed a moment of magic once more. The forward streaked down the right only to cut inside, jigging past Ghoochannejhad as he did so. With his left foot, he sliced a perfect, curving shot into the far top corner of the net, just out of reach of a stretching Haghighi.
Argentina: Romero; Zabaleta, Garay; Fede Fernández, Rojo; Gago, Mascherano, Di María (Biglia 90); Messi, Higuaín (Palacio 77), Agüero (Lavezzi 77)
As expected, Iran spent much of the first half with ten men packed behind the ball. Argentina were unable to weave their way through such tight defending, and despite having the majority of possession, could only register two shots on target.
What can Argentina do to break through the mass of Iran shirts huddled in front of goal? The patient buildup has yet to work for Alejandro Sabella’s side. Of course, they’re likely fine conserving energy and playing out a draw, but that’s not the Argentina we’ve all been hoping for. Sabella could bring on some fresh legs – Gonzalo Higuaín is looking a bit ragged and may be carrying an injury, but Ezequiel Lavezzi is available to take his place – in an attempt to change up both the tempo and the dynamic.