One of the most curious mixes of nations comes in Group B of this year’s Asian Cup, where three Asian regions will meet across several very balanced matchups.
Fourth place in the 2011 Asian Cup, Uzbekistan enter the competition on the back of good form against fellow Asian Cup participants in recent friendlies. Shocking many in the last tournament, there will now be fewer underestimating the White Wolves side that have made their intents on winning silverware known.
Known officially as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or North Korea to most, the reclusive nation has shrouded themselves in mystery by not declaring an Australian training base for their preparations and left the submission of their final squad until the deadline. Known to handle football matters differently to others, there will be intrigue over whether controversy will follow Chollima through the tournament.
Having spent almost a year under the guidance of Frenchman Alain Perrin, China have started to become more difficult to break down and are playing more as a collective. While fans have traditionally discounted China’s chances in international competition, the rise of football and the growing strength of its league has brought a new interest and desire from the nation of over one billion people.
Three-time champions Saudi Arabia return to the competition following a confidence-blowing Gulf Cup of Nations Final defeat to the hands of Qatar and losing friendly matches, 4-1 to Bahrain and 2-0 to South Korea, this month. While they dazzled the world with their technical prowess in the ’90s, the Saudis have more recently been the subject of controversy in the host nation Australia, with Nasser Al-Shamrani seen more as an enemy rather than the current AFC Player of the Year.
TEAM TO WATCH
After finishing fourth in Qatar 2011, Uzbekistan made a strong run to the final round of World Cup qualifying before fading in the stretch and eventually falling to Jordan in a playoff. Led by captain Server Djeparov, who recently lifted the Korean FA Cup with Seongnam FC, the White Wolves are eager to update their status from Asia’s most underrated side to legitimate contenders for a spot in Russia 2018.
PLAYER TO WATCH
China’s captain Zheng Zhi has lifted multiple trophies for his club, Guangzhou Evergrande, over the last few seasons and the extremely talented and experienced midfielder will no doubt be determined to do the same for his country this year. With the ability to score amazing goals such as this one against New Zealand in November, he is undoubtedly one of the biggest talents in the tournament, even at the prime age of 34.
WHO WILL GO THROUGH?
Group B is possibly one the toughest groups to predict, but Uzbekistan and China have both been in good form and played more recently in official matches than North Korea. Saudi Arabia’s success hinges on whether or not they can manage a win over China in their first game. If underdogs North Korea reach the knockout stages, they could find themselves in a quarter-final against arch rivals South Korea in a match that would surely garner global attention.
MATCH TO WATCH
The January 18 meeting between China and North Korea in Canberra could be the most intriguing tie of the tournament for neutral observers. The clash of two controversial allies presents an opportunity not only for an aggressive 90 minutes of football, but also for curious media in attendance to dabble in political writing.