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Asian Cup wrap: Japan survives, Qatar wins

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In Asian Cup action earlier today, Group F got its group stage play under way, as one of the favorites was forced to hold on at the end.

Japan took on Turkmenistan in Abu Dhabi, and it was quite the wire-to-wire scare for one of the stronger teams in the field. Turkmenistan went in front on the game’s opening goal just before the half-hour mark as Arslanmurat Amanov unleashed a beautiful strike from outside the box.

It was Turkmenistan’s lead into halftime, but it wouldn’t last long out of the break as Werder Bremen striker Yuya Osako first brought Japan level in the 56th minute with a great move in the box before a tap-in four minutes later put them 2-1 in front. 20-year-old Ritsu Doan picked up the eventual winner, scoring in the 71st minute on a big deflection to put Japan up 3-1.

That would prove vital, as Turkmenistan halved the deficit through a penalty converted by 34-year-old Ahmet Atayev with just 11 minutes remaining, and while they fought for an equalizer, Japan held them off through the final whistle.

The three points would bring Japan level with Uzbekistan atop Group F, with Uzbekistan winning 2-1 over Oman on goals from Ahmedov Ofil and Eldor Shomurodov, with the latter’s winner coming in the 85th minute on a close-range effort inside the near-post that Oman goalkeeper Faiz Al-Rushaidi will want to have back.

Finally, Qatar put itself in a good early position with a 2-0 win over Lebanon on second-half goals from Bassam Hisham and Moez Ali. Hisham’s 65th minute strike came on a well-struck free-kick from just outside the top of the box, while Ali added on in the 79th minute with an open-net tap-in after pouncing on a save forced by Abdelaziz Hatim.

WATCH: This Asian Champions League goal was struck really, really well

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The 2015 AFC Cup is bearing fruit of the wonder highlight variety.

The equivalent of the Europa League, the first day of group play Tuesday saw Al Nahda (Oman) beat Al-Wahda (Syria) via a very strong goal from Salim Al-Shamsi.

[ WATCH: Bayer bests Atleti with powerful shot ]

The midfielder takes a hard, low pass, takes a quick dribble and lashes a left-footed shot that pings off the inside of the net and rockets around the back.

It’s visually appealing. Let the video testify:

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.

Asian WCQs: Japan slips, fails to clinch; Australia held to draw at home

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Even after looking at all this information, I still don’t think I understand that context of today’s upset in Amman. Jordan beat Japan 2-1 in Asian World Cup Qualifying, and because Japan is so far ahead in their five-team group (up six points with two rounds to play), part of my mind’s shutting off. Perhaps it’s a defense mechanism, tuning out the utter shock that would otherwise be pulsing through my head.

Japan should have won this one and clinched their spot for Brazil 2014. Instead, they fell to a team they beat 6-0 last June in Saitama.

The Samurai Blue are clearly the best team in Asia right now, while Jordan was expected to have trouble in a group that also includes Australia, Iraq, and Oman (top two clinch Brazil, the next goes into a playoff … to play in a playoff for a spot in the World Cup). With a squad comprised of almost exclusively domestic-based players, Jordan had a -7 goal difference through five matches, though they had recently defeated a struggling Australia at home. Japan, with a squad split between their domestic league and Germany (with a few other players sprinkled throughout Europe), were 4-0-1 in the final round, had scored 13 times and only conceded twice.

They’d dominated. The reigning AFC champions should have become the second team to clinch a spot in Brazil.

Because they didn’t, the game turned into an admonition: Getting qualifying results on the road is hard. Maybe a lot less so in Europe, and there are always countries whose familiarities form habits, but when Japan is playing 5,600 miles away from Tokyo, the trip’s always going to seem a little foreign. Even when the Samurai Blue have been handing around the Middle East for a week (playing Canada in Doha on Thursday).

Only in the perverse world of FIFA confederations could the Pacific Rim and the Fertile Crescent be part of the same region, so when one team has to travel from one end of that blob to the other, you get results like a 6-0 in Saitama. And a 2-1 in Amman.

As with most upsets, the game had its fair share of luck, timing, and just deserts. The game looked destined to go into halftime scoreless before an injury time corner kick was converted by Khalil Bani Ateyah. Despite controlling the game, the visitors were sentinto the dressing rooms down a goal.

That dominance turned to urgency in the second half, but a great individual effort from Ahmad Ibrahim doubled Jordan’s lead on the hour. Shinji Kagawa (pictured) pulled one back, and veteran Yasuhito Endo looked set to draw Japan even with a late penalty kick, but when Amer Sabbah saved the try, Jordan had their second win of the group.

They may not have been picked to come out of Group B, but after six games, the Jordanians are in second place. Australia, sitting third, still have a game in hand, and Jordan will have to go to Melbourne for their next qualifier, but with time running out on Asia’s last round, Jordan looks a good bet to at least claim a playoff spot.

Australia plays in Japan on June 4, a game the Samurai Blue now care about, while Jordan closes qualifying on June 18 hosting Oman. The same day, the Socceroos host Iraq.

If the Socceroos lose in Japan, Jordan control their own fate. Get a result in Melbroune then win at home and the nation will qualify for their first ever World Cup.

Even if the Socceroos get something in Saitama, Jordan’s home game against Oman gives them an inside track on the playoff spot.

source: Getty ImagesAnother stumble for Australia

When Australia breezed through AFC qualifying four years ago, there was a sense that they’d caught their new confederation by surprised Their set piece prowess and reliance on Joshua Kennedy and Tim Cahill on the end of crosses made their first trip thorugh Asian qualifying an easy one. Not overly talented and or doing anything complicated, Australia were just winning individual battles and taking victories. The simplicity of it seemed to leave opponents asking “is that it” as the Socceroos moved on to South Africa.

Of course, that’s just a hypothesis, but it’s one that’s gathered supporting evidence this cycle, where the Australians have struggled to keep up with Asia’s other powers. Japan, who Australia lost to in the final of the last Asian Cup, has left them in Group B’s dust, while the Socceroos are stuck on one win. With Jordan’s surprise success, Australia’s a doubt for Brazil. At a minimum, their qualifying campaign’s become unexpectedly complicated.

With results like today’s 2-2 at home against Oman, the Australians have brought this on themselves. They can take solace in having found back from a two-goal deficit, scores by Tim Cahill (pictured) and Brett Holman pulling back the lead built by Abdulaziz Al-Muqbali and a Mile Jedinak own goal, but falling two down to Oman at home is indictment enough. In both form and standing, the Socceroos are in trouble.

“It was definitely not what we expected. We had different hopes going into that games but unfortunately the first half was not according to plan and we almost paid dearly for that,” he head coach Holger Osieck said after the match.

“We always passed backwards, we delayed our game, there was no penetration, there was no quick ball up into the centre. So we basically played to their cards. That’s the reason we didn’t do well in the first half.”

Next up is Japan, a team against whom they needed a 70th minute penalty conversion to draw last June. Thankfully, the Socceroos don’t need a result this time. With June home matches against Jordan and Iraq, Australia can hold serve at home and qualify for Brazil.

Uzbeks still on top of Group A

With their 1-0 home win over Lebanon, Uzbekistan — who have never qualified for a World Cup — still lead their group. South Korea’s 2-1 win over Qatar keep the Koreans one back with a game in hand, but the important number for the Uzbeks is four. That’s how many points they have on third place Iran (who also have a game in hand). Finish ahead of them and fourth place Qatar, and Uzbekistan’s going to Brazil.

Their result came from a bit of luck, but having already suffered their fair share of qualifying mishaps, the Uzbeks deserves a little evening of the scales. In the 66th minute, a shot from Server Djeparov took a heavy deflection before going in for the game’s only goal.

While fortune intervened to guide the ball past Abbas Hassan, the Uzbeks were the better side throughout, earning three points and their third consecutive 1-0 victory. Their June 11 trip to South Korea likely ends that run, but with a June 18 match at home against Qatar, Uzbekistan will likely be able to earn their spot in Brazil 2014.

Asian World Cup Qualifying: Japan has almost clinched a spot in Brazil

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If you need some king of clear, unambiguous sign that Asian soccer continues to improve, consider the World Cup qualifying campaigns of South Korea, Australia, and North Korea — three qualifiers for 2010’s World Cup:

  • South Korea’s doing well enough in the tournament’s fourth and final round (2-1-1 through four matches), though it’s a slow start for a team that went 4-0-4 during 2010’s final qualifying round.
  • Australia, while second in Group B, has only won one of their four final round matches, scoring only four goals in as many games.
  • Meanwhile, North Korea didn’t even make the final, 10-team round.

Japan, on the other hand (the region’s other qualifier for South Africa), appears to be getting stronger. After today’s 2-1 win in Oman, the Japanese have 13 points from a possible 15. Holding an eight-point lead with three games left in their tournament, Japan’s almost assured a fifth trip to the World Cup.

The win was more meaningful than it looked. Oman may never be a household name, but in World Cup qualifying, they’ve been tough. Their record is now 2-2-1, their only losses coming at the sword of the Blue Samurai (despite playing in a group with Australia and Iraq).

Coming into today’s game, Paul Le Guen’s side had five points in their last three games. Though most of his players play domestically, they have two noted talents making their money beyond the Omani league: Wigan Athletic goalkeeper Ali Al-Habsi and Al-Ahli (Saudi Arabia) striker Amad Al-Hosni. Particularly at home — 4860 miles from Tokyo — they can be formidable.

Australia learned that lesson earlier in qualifying. In June, the Socceroos showed up in Muscat expected to win only to be shutout by Al-Habsi. The Aussies won a point, Mark Schwarzer keeping his own clean sheet, but with Oman coming off a lopsided 3-0 loss in Japan, the result provided a huge confidence boost.

On Wednesday, Oman was just as resilient. The match looked destined to end in a 1-1 draw, Oman having pulled back an early Japan lead while Al-Habsi had kept the Japanese at arms’ length. Then, just before full time, Shinji Okazaki converted on a set piece to give the confederation champions their win.

The difference between Japan and Australia’s results in Muscat exemplifies Japan’s climb. While the Japanese have improved since we saw them in South Africa, Australia has regressed. The rest of the qualifying group (Iraq, Oman, Jordan) started in too big a whole to compete with the Samurai Blue.

Whether Japan’s advantage applies to the rest of Asia — specifically, South Korea — remains to be seen. With the Koreans in Group A and the next Asian Cup not scheduled until 2015, it may be a while before we see the Japanese meat the region’s other power.

Other results – AFC qualifying

Iraq 1-0 Jordan – Iraq got their first win of the tournament, another “home” game staged in Doha. Against Group B’s most generous defense, Iraq needed 85 minutes before 19-year-old Hammadi Ahmad scored from just outside the penalty area, giving Zico’s team their first win of the tournament.

Qatar 1-0 Lebanon – Against a Lebanon side making their first appearance at this stage of the tournament, Qatar got what amounted to a must-win. Naturalized Uruguayan Sebastián Soria scored in the 75th minute to pull Qatar out of last place, vaulting them within one point of group-leading … Uzbekistan?

Iran 0-1 Uzbekistan – A huge win for Uzbekis, and not because it pushed them into first place. With South Korea holding a match in hand, that status will likely change, but after a devastating home loss to Iran that opened final round qualifying, Uzbekistan got revenge. A late goal from veteran Ulugbek Bakayev was only the second goal Carlos Quieroz’s side has given up in five games.

Standings

Group A Pld W D L GF GA GD Pts
Uzbekistan 5 2 2 1 5 4 +1 8
South Korea 4 2 1 1 9 4 +5 7
Iran 5 2 1 2 2 2 0 7
Qatar 5 2 1 2 3 5 −2 7
Lebanon 5 1 1 3 2 6 −4 4
Group Bt Pld W D L GF GA GD Pts
Japan 5 4 1 0 13 2 +11 13
Australia 4 1 2 1 4 4 0 5
Iraq 5 1 2 2 4 5 −1 5
Oman 5 1 2 2 4 7 −3 5
Jordan 5 1 1 3 4 11 −7 4