The group to open this year’s Asian Cup features both the runners-up and third place nations of the tournament’s last installment.
Host nation Australia fell to a late Japan goal in the final of Qatar 2011, but are currently undergoing a lengthy transitional phase under coach Ange Postecoglou and have failed to impress with results since last year’s World Cup. The Socceroo coach’s eyes seem firmly set on the 2018 World Cup in Russia, while vice-captain Mark Milligan has made the bold claim that they will make the most of home advantage and lift silverware this month.
South Korea‘s inconsistent form has disappointed fans since their woefully underwhelming exit from the World Cup. Taeguk Warriors coach Uli Stielike, who joined following the World Cup, has made some bold statements by leaving out Al-Shabab striker Park Chu-young for poor performances along with several other overseas-based players, but can be hopeful with the likes of the young Son Heung-min turning out impressive performances for his German club.
Oman have a good record against the host nation, holding them to stalemates in their last couple of appearances, however The Red Warriors have never progressed beyond a single Asian Cup group stage and failed to even qualify for the last edition. Ali Al-Habsi, former Premier League goalkeeper and perhaps one of the tournament’s most recognisable names, will lead the side with long-time respected coach Paul Le Guen on the sidelines and Canberra-born Jim Selby providing valuable advice as the country’s technical director.
Opening the tournament alongside the Socceroos, one-time champions Kuwait will want to do better than their last Asian Cup outing, where they exited in the group stage. Kuwait will also be looking forward to avenging their 5-0 Gulf Cup loss at the hands of Oman, but will have to wait until the final game of the group stage. Fans of Al-Azraq, who are now under the guidance of Tunisian coach Nabil Maaloul, would love to see a return of the strength they had in 2010 that earned them both the Gulf Cup and West Asian Football Federation Championship.
TEAM TO WATCH
South Korea have had an uninspiring seven months and fans back home are piling on the expectation for The Taeguk Warriors to pick up form and maximum points. Being knocked out of the semi-finals to rivals Japan in the last edition of the tournament will give the South Koreans the drive to perform much better in Australia and we should also see a much more complete version of Uli Stielike’s philosophy on the pitch, making this side one of the favourites to reach the final and even lift the silverware.
PLAYER TO WATCH
Son Heung-min is making waves with Bayer Leverkusen both domestically and in the UEFA Champions League, with the 22-year-old’s goal scoring and technical abilities catching the eye of pundits and fans alike. Quickly becoming one of South Korea’s biggest assets going forward, particularly in the absence of Lee Dong-gook and Park Chu-young, Son is one of the biggest talents to appear in the tournament.
WHO WILL GO THROUGH?
South Korea and Australia will be expected to progress and their match up is likely to decide which will finish top of the group. Oman should not be discarded and could potentially throw a curveball at the two Asian giants, but will require one of the two to slip up in order to pounce on an opportunity.
MATCH TO WATCH
Australia v Kuwait on January 9 is the opener of the tournament and will not only set the benchmark for the rest of the Asian Cup’s matches, but also be critical in setting the tone for host nation Australia’s campaign. With an entire continent tuning in to watch what should be a full stadium in Melbourne, anything other than a win for the Socceroos would be devastating.