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It’s just three 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. Today, it’s Group B, featuring the intriguing mix of China, North Korea, Saudi Arabia and Uzbekistan.
China PR – FIFA ranking: 97; AFC ranking: 8; Asian Cup finals appearances: 10; best finish: second in 2004; odds – $1.91 to qualify for second round, $3.75 to win group, $26 to win tournament
There are nations competing in this tournament with domestic populations of fewer than three million people. Then there’s the Chinese national team, which is representing a populous of 1.357 billion people. However, China is yet to make a splash on the international football stage and the promise shown early in the 2000s seems to have dissipated after they reached the 2002 World Cup and the final of this competition (on home soil) two years later. Indeed, China endured a difficult path to qualification for this tournament with their spot not confirmed until the final group game. Despite losing 3-1 to Iraq, Zhang Xizhe’s second-half penalty meant China claimed the spot available for the best third place finisher ahead of Lebanon on goal difference after the latter had come within a whisker of completing a remarkable six-goal turnaround in goal difference.
Despite being unable to progress beyond the group stage at the last two editions in 2007 and 2011, China have only failed to reach the knockout stage three times since their impressive debut in 1976 where they finished in the top three. They reached the final in 1984 and were semi-finalists in 1988, 1992 and 2000 before they hosted the tournament in 2004, losing the final to rivals Japan 3-1. In the lead-up to the 2015 Asian Cup, China is unbeaten under new coach Alain Perrin with wins over Kuwait (3-1), Thailand (3-0), Kyrgyzstan (4-0 and 2-0) and Paraguay (2-1). Despite entering the latter days of his career, 34-year-old Zheng Zhi (pictured above) has matured into an intelligent and tactically aware midfielder and leader. He was crowned Asian Player of the Year in 2013 and plays with the all-conquering Guangzhou Evergrande.
DPR (North) Korea – FIFA ranking: 150; AFC ranking: 25; Asian Cup finals appearances: 3; best finish: fourth in 1980; odds – $2.50 to qualify for second round, $6.00 to win group, $67 to win tournament; suggested group stage bet – none
Given the hurdles placed in the way of its players maximising their talents and opportunities, it’s a credit that North Korea is able to put together a side capable of reaching a tournament of this stature. For example, Pak Kwang-ryong signed for Swiss club FC Basel in 2011 –a club official said that signing an exotic animal would have been easier. The striker (and his minder, a former football referee) enjoyed life in Switzerland, but the forward was cautioned against talking to South Korean team-mate Park Joo-ho! North Korea qualified for the 2015 AFC Asian Cup by winning the 2012 AFC Challenge Cup with a 2-1 victory over Turkmenistan, the same opponents they defeated on penalties two years earlier in the final in Sri Lanka, which booked their ticket to the previous Asian Cup finals in Qatar four years ago.
North Korea’s high point in this competition came in 1980 when, drawing from the squad that had reached the quarter-finals of the 1976 Montreal Olympics, they achieved a highly creditable fourth place, losing 2-1 in an all-Korean semi-final after conceding twice in the last 10 minutes. They will always have a place in history as the first Asian team to advance past the World Cup group stage, pulling off an upset 1-0 victory over Italy in 1966 to reach the quarter-finals. They qualified again for the 2010 World Cup finals but left South Africa without a point. Jo Tong-sop replaces Yun Jong-su (banned from stadiums on Asian Cup matchdays due to constant complaints about referees) as the head coach. Their lead-up form against Asian Cup competition has hardly been impressive, with losses to Qatar and Kuwait and a draw with Bahrain.
Saudi Arabia – FIFA ranking: 102; AFC ranking: 11; Asian Cup finals appearances: 8; best finish: champion in 1996; odds – $1.67 to qualify for second round, $3.20 to win group, $23 to win tournament; suggested group stage bet – none
In contrast to its group rivals China and North Korea, Saudi Arabia has a proud history on both the regional and global stage. They’re making their ninth successive finals appearance and reached the final in each of their first five appearances, winning against China (1984) and South Korea (1988) before a penalty shoot-out win over the United Arab Emirates in Abu Dhabi in 1996. Saudi Arabia’s performance at the 2011 finals in Qatar was particularly disappointing for such a successful nation as the Green Falcons fell at the group stage for just the second time, losing to Syria and Jordan before suffering a heavy defeat against Japan. The Saudis have also represented Asia at the FIFA World Cup finals on four occasions, including in 1994 in the United States when they reached the round of 16.
Saudi Arabia’s form in recent months has been solid. They lost to Australia 3-2 in September, managed draws with Uruguay and Lebanon before a 2-0 win over Palestine. Looking to win their fourth Gulf Cup in November, Saudi Arabia won through to the final only to lose to Qatar. Bizarrely, Saudi Arabia has a tradition of employing Romanian coaches with the return of Cosmin Olăroiu stranger still. After winning his second Crown Prince cup, Olăroiu removed his T-shirt that featured a picture of the said-Prince and threw it on the podium. The Saudi FA called the act “unacceptable” but he’s back. Prolific striker Nasser Al-Shamrani is well known to Australian fans – just hours after being named AFC player of the year, he was banned for eight games for spitting at Matthew Spiranovic after Saudi giants Al-Hilal lost the Asian Champions League final to Western Sydney Wanderers.
Uzbekistan – FIFA ranking: 74; AFC ranking: 4; Asian Cup finals appearances: 5; best finish: fourth in 2011; odds – $1.50 to qualify for second round, $2.70 to win group, $17 to win tournament; suggested group stage bet – none
This Central Asian nation has now qualified for every edition of the Asian Cup since gaining independence from the USSR, and in Qatar 2011 reached the semi-finals for the first time following back-to-back quarter-final exits. Uzbekistan enjoyed a sensational Asian football debut at the 1994 Asian Games, winning all seven games to claim the gold medal. Their Asian Cup record has steadily improved in recent years – the Uzbeks reached the group stage in 1996 and 2004 in their first two appearances followed by quarter-final in 2004 and 2007 and the last four in 2011. National hero Mirdjalal Kasimov was reappointed as coach in June 2012 while, unusually, the former midfielder also remained in charge of domestic heavyweights Bunyodkor until last year. Two-time AFC Player of the Year Server Djeparov (pictured above) remains key for Uzbekistan along with Russia-based midfielder Odil Ahmedov.
Kasimov’s side started their preparation for the 2015 AFC Asian Cup with a 0-0 draw against Azerbaijan before defeating Jordan (2-0) and New Zealand (3-1). Having lost to Qatar 3-0 in Doha they finished scoreless with Bahrain before defeating the UAE 4-0 in Abu Dhabi. Uzbekistan then secured victories over Palestine (1-0) and Jordan (2-1) in early December. They finalised their AFC Asian Cup preparations with a 1-0 win and a scoreless draw against Iraq. If he’s on song, Server Djeparov could be one of the stars of the tournament. The two-time Asian player of the year was famously slapped by his coach at Korean club Seongnam FC early in the season and wasn’t unhappy when he was fired. If Uzbekistan can hit their straps in their tournament opener against Korea DPR, they could make a major impact in Australia.