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The 2015 Asian Cup kicked-off in Melbourne, Australia, last night under rainy skies with a 4-1 victory for the host nation over Kuwait in a scrappy affair. In our continuing look at the four groups to unearth some value for punters on the road to crowning the kings of Asian football, today’s preview features Group C, comprising Gulf trio Bahrain, UAE and Qatar along with group favourites and Iran.
Bahrain – FIFA ranking: 122; AFC ranking: 14; Asian Cup finals appearances: 4; best finish: fourth in 2004; odds – $4 to qualify for second round, $10 to win group, $151 to win tournament
A nation that fights well above its weight on the regional football scene, Bahrain enters this tournament in a confident manner having claimed back-to-back victories for the first time in more than a year after defeating Jordan 1-0 in a lead-up game at Ballarat. Backing up their 4-1 victory over Saudi Arabia earlier in the week, new coach Marjan Eid has helped restore confidence in his side ahead of Asia’s premier football tournament. Having bowed out of the 2011 AFC Asian Cup in the group stage, this is Bahrain’s fifth continental championship. The Gulf nation made its AFC Asian Cup finals debut at the 1988 tournament in Qatar. It would take 16 years before they would return to the finals where they lost a thrilling semi-final 4-3 to eventual champion Japan. Their trips to the 2007 and 2011 finals also ended at the group stage.
Bahrain finished atop their qualification group for this tournament with wins over Yemen (home and away), Qatar and Malaysia to go with two draws in an impressive campaign. They secured their ticket to Australia in the penultimate fixture with a 2-0 win over Yemen. Surprisingly, they could only manage two draws and a loss at the 2014 Gulf Cup of Nations in Saudi Arabia and failed to progress from the group stage of the tournament after also failing to score a single goal. On the world stage, Bahrain has twice come close to qualifying for the FIFA World Cup only to suffer excruciating intercontinental playoff defeats to Trinidad and Tobago (2006) and New Zealand (2010). Midfielder Faouzi Aaish emerged as a goal scoring threat throughout qualification and underlined his skill when he converted a brilliant free kick in the final lead-up game.
Iran – FIFA ranking: 51; AFC ranking: 1; Asian Cup finals appearances: 12; best finish: champions in 1968, 1972 & 1976; odds – $1.20 to qualify for second round, $1.72 to win group, $8.00 to win tournament
One of the legitimate challengers to the Asian Cup title, Iran is making a record-equalling 13th appearance in this tournament. A constant at the Asian Cup since first hosting the tournament in 1968 Iran claimed their spot in the tournament after winning Group B ahead of Kuwait, Lebanon and Thailand. Team Melli have enjoyed significant success in the Asian Cup, having won three successive titles in 1968, 1972 and 1976. Iran were then helmed by legendary manager Heshmat Mohajerani who not only took his country to their third AFC Asian Cup in 1976 and in that same year a quarter-final appearance in the Montreal Olympics, but also led the national side to their first ever appearance at the 1978 FIFA World Cup in Argentina. But since those glory years, Iran proved unable to match the achievements of Mohajerani’s men, crashing out in the AFC Asian Cup semi-finals on five occasions.
It also took two decades before the Middle Eastern giants returned to the World Cup, playing a part in the tournament in 1998, backed by the goals of their Bundesliga star and Iranian icon Ali Daei. Led by former Real Madrid and Portugal national team manager Carlos Queiroz, Iran secured a place in the 2014 FIFA World Cup, topping their qualification group in the process, for their fourth appearance at the finals. Skippered by evergreen Javad Nekounam (pictured above) who is nearing 150 caps, and with exciting attacking stars Ashkan Dejagah and Reza Ghoochannejhad, Iran have the ability to match their former glory and underline their status as the Asian confederation’s number one ranked nation. Importantly, Iran secured a crucial 1-0 win over fellow Asian Cup contenders and bogey side Korea Republic in the build-up to this tournament.
Qatar – FIFA ranking: 92; AFC ranking: 6; Asian Cup finals appearances: 8; best finish: quarter-finals in 2000 & 2011; odds – $1.83 to qualify for second round, $4.33 to win group, $3.75 to win tournament; suggested group stage bet – none
Ranked on the second line of betting along with the UAE in this group, Qatar has enjoyed a successful 12 months on the regional stage. They are the only team in Group C not to finish top of their qualifying group but they only lost one game, to group competitors Bahrain, and were easy winners in their remaining fixtures. The 2011 hosts recorded a pair of high-scoring wins over Yemen as well as victories over Malaysia. Qatar first took part in the AFC Asian Cup in 1980, and after four consecutive group stage exits and a failed qualification campaign in 1996, finally advanced to the knockout stage for the first time in Lebanon in 2000. Group stage exits followed in 2004 and 2007 before, on home soil in 2011, Qatar rose to the challenge and returned to the quarter-finals where they were narrowly beaten 3-2 by Japan.
Qatar were able to build on that success and progressed to the final round of qualifying for the 2014 FIFA World Cup with an unbeaten record alongside Iran but fell short of their ultimate goal. At worst, Qatar can look forward to a World Cup finals appearance in 2022 as tournament hosts. Qatar then headed to the 2014 Gulf Cup of Nations where they went through the group stage recording three draws before beating Oman 3-1 and Saudi Arabia 1-0 in the final to claim their third Gulf Cup title. Finalising their preparations in Australia, Qatar played out a 2-2 draw with Oman in Geelong and before defeating New Zealand domestic side Team Wellington 3-1 in Canberra. Coached by Algerian Dejamel Belmadi, Qatar draws heavily on players from its rapidly improving domestic league the likes of Khalfan Ibrahim (Al Sadd,), Bilal Mohammed (Al Gharafa) and Boualem Khoukhi (Al Arabi).
UAE – FIFA ranking: 80; AFC ranking: 5; Asian Cup finals appearances: 9; best finish: runners-up in 1996; odds – $1.83 to qualify for second round, $4.33 to win group, $31 to win tournament
Comprising Abu Dhabi, Ajman, Dubai, Fujairah, Ras al-Khaimah, Sharjah, and Umm al-Quwain, the United Arab Emirates are home to 9.2 million people although just 1.4 million hold UAE citizenship. Like its gulf neighbours, the UAE has a strong football tradition but since qualifying for the World Cup in 1990 they have enjoyed a lean period on the international stage and have failed to progress past the group stage of the Asian Cup since they were runners-up in 1996. The national team has endured an unstable period of constant managerial change, with the list including Dick Advocaat and Roy Hodgson. Local coach Mahdi Ali (pictured above) steered his young side to victory at the hotly contested Gulf Cup in Bahrain at the end of 2012, the second time the country has won the regional tournament after claiming the trophy in 2006. Many in Ali’s team also represented the UAE at the Olympics in London in 2012.
The UAE, like Iran, breezed through qualification dropping only two points on their way to top spot. Ali Mabkhout chipped in with five goals, the highest in qualification. The creative heart of the team is Omar Abdulrahman and he is ably supported in midfield by Amer Abdulrahman (no relation) while Ahmed Khalil emerged as a striker of considerable promise at the AFC U19 Championship in 2008 when just 17 years of age and has gone on to establish himself as one of the leading strikers in the Middle East. Following a trio of draws in the middle of last year, the UAE finished scoreless with AFC Asian Cup hosts Australia. In the 2014 Gulf Cup, the UAE played out draws with Oman (0-0) and Kuwait (2-2) before recording a 2-0 victory over Iraq. After a 3-2 semi-final loss to Saudi Arabia, they finished the tournament on a high with a victory over Oman.