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It’s just four days until one of the biggest football tournaments on the international calendar for 2015, the AFC Asian Cup, kicks-off in Australia. The opening game will be played at AAMI Park in Melbourne on Friday night between the host nation and Kuwait. Over the coming days, we’ll take a look at each of the four groups to unearth some value for punters on the road to crowning the kings of Asian football. We start with Group A, featuring Australia, South Korea along with Gulf duo Oman and Kuwait.
Australia – FIFA ranking: 100; AFC ranking: 10; Asian Cup finals appearances: 2; best finish: second in 2011; odds – $1.08 to qualify for second round, $1.80 to win group, $3.75 to win tournament
There are two schools of thought on the state of Australian football heading into this pivotal tournament as the host nation. Some think coach Ange Postecoglou has the squad heading in the right direction with new blood flowing through the program after his predecessor Holger Osieck had stuck with experience. Others quickly point to Australia’s 0-3 record in a tough World Cup group at Brazil 2014 and subsequent record of W1 D1 L3 in friendlies since, along with Postecoglou’s inability (or reluctance) to alter his mostly attacking coaching approach. That record included a scrappy 3-2 win over Saudi Arabia in London, a 2-1 defeat in Japan and, most worryingly, a 1-0 loss on home soil against Group A opponents Qatar. The Australian football community certainly hopes that the former situation is the case as the coach is in just the second year of a five-year contract.
The expectations on the hosts are extremely high after they fell to Japan in the 2011 AFC Asian Cup final after an extra-time goal from Japan striker Tadanari Lee. It was just their second appearance at the AFC Asian Cup after moving to the Asian confederation from Oceania and gave the Samurai Blue a record fourth title. Gone is the generation of Kewell, Neill and Schwarzer with Australia now depending on the likes of Mathew Leckie, Robbie Kruse, Jason Davidson and Tommy Oar, along with the ever-dependable Tim Cahill and captain Mile Jedinak, who is in career best form with his EPL club Crystal Palace. However, Australia’s biggest issue remains its ability to hit the back of the net. If Cahill’s goals are again to be relied upon, Australia could fall well short of its ultimate goal in this tournament.
South Korea – FIFA ranking: 69; AFC ranking: 3; Asian Cup finals appearances: 12; best finish: champions (1956, 1960); odds – $1.20 to qualify for second round, $2.20 to win group, $6.00 to win tournament
Like Australia, South Korea finished at the bottom of its group in the recent World Cup finals, blowing a golden opportunity to reach the second round against Belgium, Russia and Algeria. However, their Asian Cup pedigree is much more impressive as 2015 marks a record-equalling 13th appearance in the tournament. Inaugural AFC Asian Cup winners in 1956, and the tournament’s first back-to-back champions after successfully defending their title four years later, South Korea’s record participation in the competition is matched only by that of Iran. Despite their AFC Asian Cup longevity, the Taeguk Warriors’ have not held aloft the coveted trophy since winning the 1960 tournament, with the East Asians finishing runners-up on three further occasions. In 1988, they lost a penalty shootout to Saudi Arabia after a 100 per cent record in the lead-up to the final.
Having participated in every FIFA World Cup since 1986, advancing to the knock-out stage twice and famously making the semi-finals in 2002 when South Korea co-hosted the tournament with Japan, Korea Republic’s standing as one of Asia’s leading nations is unquestionable. Uli Stielike has been given the task of leading South Korea. He took over from Korean legend Hong Myung-bo who stood down after the side’s disappointing World Cup campaign. Led by mop-topped winger Son Heung-min of Bundesliga outfit Bayer Leverkusen, South Korea’s post World Cup form has been solid with wins over Venezuela, Paraguay, Jordan and Iran to go with a narrow loss against Uruguay and a 3-1 defeat at the hands of Costa Rica. A confident 2-0 win over Saudi Arabia ensured head into their opening game against Oman in Canberra in winning form.
Oman – FIFA ranking: 96; AFC ranking: 7; Asian Cup finals appearances: 2; best finish: group stage (2004, 2007); odds – $3.50 to qualify for second round, $11.00 to win group, $51 to win tournament
Oman is an oddity on the regional football scene. It was not until the mid-1990s under the chairmanship of Sheikh Saif bin Hashil Al-Maskary that Oman started to make its mark on the Asian football stage. During this period, Oman won the Asian U17 Championship in 1996 and 2000, and reached the semi-finals of the U17 World Cup in 1995. The senior team has never qualified for the World Cup finals, but 2015 marks their third appearance in the Asian Cup finals (along with 2004 and 2007). They have reached the Gulf Cup of Nations final on three occasions and won it on their third attempt as hosts. A penalty from captain Mohamed Rabia helped Oman secure a 6-5 shootout victory over Saudi Arabia in the final of the 2009 Gulf Cup having lost in the 2004 and 2007 finals.
Oman secured a return to the AFC Asian Cup finals after advancing from Group A with two games to spare on the back of a solid campaign in AFC World Cup qualification. National coach Paul Le Guen (pictured above) captained Paris St Germain (to go with almost 20 national caps) then went on to coach the same side along with Rangers in Scotland and led Olympique Lyonnais to three successive Ligue 1 titles. He took Cameroon to the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. Oman have had a busy couple of months leading into Asia’s premier football tournament, kicking off October with an entertaining 4-3 loss to Costa Rica. They kicked off the Gulf Cup of Nations with an emphatic 5-0 victory over Kuwait but lost 3-1 to eventual champions Qatar before a 1-0 loss to the UAE to depart the tournament prior to the knockout phase.
Kuwait – FIFA ranking: 124; AFC ranking: 15; Asian Cup finals appearances: 9; best finish: champions (1980); odds – $7.00 to qualify for second round, $31.00 to win group, $101 to win tournament
It’s easy to forget that Kuwait is a nation of barely three million residents, for their rich Asian Cup history includes lifting the trophy in 1980, finishing runners-up four years earlier and reaching the semi-finals in 1996 and quarter-finals in 2000. An appearance at the 1982 FIFA World Cup (made famous when Kuwaiti FA president Prince Fahid stormed the pitch in an attempt to have a goal overturned) also confirmed the early 1980s as a golden period for football in Kuwait. They reached the final of the 1976 edition of the tournament only to suffer a 1-0 defeat by Iran but four years later on home soil, Kuwait gained revenge with a 2-1 win over Iran in the semi-finals before beating South Korea 3-0 in the final. Kuwait bounced back in 1996 with another run to the semi-finals only to lose to the UAE.
After missing out on the knockout phase of the 2014 Gulf Cup of Nations coach Jorvan Viera was replaced by Nabil Maaloul who will be hoping to return Kuwait to the former glory. The former Tunisian international coached at club sides ES Tunis and El Jaish before taking charge of the national team. They were mighty lucky to scrape into the finals from a qualifying group dominated by Iran as they finished just a point clear of Lebanon. Their roller coaster form has continued in recent months with wins over North Korea and Jordan heading into the 2014 Gulf Cup of Nations where they were looking to win a record 11th title. They were poised to qualify for the semi-finals before a morale-sapping 5-0 loss to Oman. In their final match before this tournament, they tied Iraq 1-1 in Sharjah.