In every tournament there is always the dreaded ‘Group of Death’, and in the case of this year’s AFC Asian Cup that would have to be Group C, an all-Gulf group featuring Iran, UAE, Qatar and Bahrain.
As is often the case Iran come into this tournament with the least amount of preparation, yet despite this they are tipped by many to be one of the favourites.
While they failed to win a game at the FIFA World Cup, they did impress in their performances, particularly against Argentina. Reza Ghoochannejhad and Ashkan Dejagah are their biggest attacking weapons going forward and both raised eyebrows when they swapped Europe for the Middle East after the World Cup. Also keep an eye on winger Alireza Jahanbakhsh who is making an impression in Holland.
The most in-form side heading into the 16th AFC Asian Cup is Qatar, undefeated in their last 11, who enjoyed a breakout year in 2014 winning both the WAFF Championship and Gulf Cup, while their U19 side were crowned Asian champions.
Although their Gulf Cup form was patchy, they regain the services of 2014 AFC Player of the Year nominee Khalfan Ibrahim, who actually won the award as a teenager in 2006, who missed the tournament with injury. Al-Sadd attacker Hassan Al-Haidos impressed in his absence and will be looking to take that form into the Asian Cup.
Their opponents on the opening match day are UAE, who have been promising to deliver for a number of years. The formation of this squad dates back to 2008 when they were crowned AFC U19 champions, then going on to qualify for the London 2012 Olympics a few years later before embarking on a 17-game winning streak. While their form has tapered somewhat in the last 12 months, they have at their disposal one of Asia’s best talents in Omar Abdulrahman, who is complimented by the equally capable Amer Abdulrahman.
Having three genuine contenders in the group means little is expected of Bahrain, now under the guidance of Marjan Eid after they sacked Adnan Hamad for a poor showing at the recent Gulf Cup. Training away from the spotlight in Ballarat, their lead in form is good, recording a 4-1 win over Saudi Arabia and a 1-0 win over Jordan which will give them confidence. Moroccan-born Faouzi Aaish is the key man in midfield, while Jaycee John earns a recall after two years in the wilderness.
TEAM TO WATCH
With the likes of Omar and Amer Abdulrahman, Ali Makbhout and Ahmed Khalil in their side there is a lot to like about UAE. A lot will depend on the fitness of playmaker Omar Abdulrahman, who has been battling a knee injury since the Gulf Cup. If he is fit and at his best he will take UAE a long way. Mahdi Ali has guided this side since the 2008 AFC U19 Championships and now is the time to deliver on that promise.
PLAYER TO WATCH
Omar Abdulrahman is the obvious choice, but keep an eye on Alireza Jahanbakhsh for Iran. Quick and with a nose for goal the 21-year-old looms as one of the next generation for Iranian football. With NEC in Holland he was voted one of the best young players in the Eredivisie in the 2013/14 season. While NEC now play in the second division he has seven goals from his 18 games this season.
WHO WILL GO THROUGH
It’s too tough to say definitively at this point. It is incredibly tight and each result will have an impact on the overall finish of the group. Iran is considered a title favourite by many, while UAE are a dark horse and Qatar is the most in-form team coming into the tournament. If it is a race between Qatar and UAE for the second spot it will come down to their match on the opening weekend.
MATCH TO WATCH
Canberra will be treated to a cracking contest on the opening weekend when UAE and Qatar face off. The two nations have won the past two Gulf Cups and boast some exciting talent. If one team manages to take all three points it will go a long way to securing their place in the Quarter Final. It’s one not to be missed.