The Asian Cup’s fourth and final group features a number of intriguing and history-making pairings that should satisfy both fans and neutrals.
The most featured team are undoubtedly defending champions Japan, who will be looking to add a fifth continental trophy to their case. The Samurai Blue will want to recover from last year’s disappointing World Cup showing and prove that they are still the ‘King of Asia.” They’ll do so under new coach Javier Aguirre, who is under fire from domestic media following accusations of match-fixing during his time as the manager of Spain’s Real Zaragoza.
Japan are joined by 2007 winners Iraq, who only last month appointed Radhi Shenaishil as their new coach. The Lions of Mesopotamia bowed out of 2014’s WAFF Championship and Gulf Cup of Nations without a win in the group stages, and indeed have not won in the last 10 months.
Jordan, who were grouped with Japan and Iraq in the final group stage of Asian qualifying for the 2014 World Cup, will be seeking revenge after missing out on Brazil. Ray Wilkins’ side are winless since a March 2014 Asian Cup qualifier win over Syria; seven of the nine matches they’ve played since then were against fellow Asian Cup participants.
Last but not least are debutantes Palestine, who booked their ticket to Australia by winning the 2014 AFC Challenge Cup with a victory over Philippines. Their preparations, against a socio-political backdrop the likes of which few teams have ever faced in their history, have brought promise, including a win at Vietnam, a narrow loss to Uzbekistan, and a scoreless draw against China.
TEAM TO WATCH
Palestine will have nothing to lose in their first Asian Cup, and though a defeat seems likely against Japan they’ll be eager to steal points from their West Asian rivals who are in poor form. Backed by a significant expat population (roughly 10,000 of whom reside in Australia), the Strivers may not win games but they can certainly win hearts and minds.
PLAYER TO WATCH
As star teammates Shinji Kagawa and Keisuke Honda soak up the media attention, Shinji Okazaki has quietly become Japan’s greatest assets, with eight goals for Mainz in this season’s Bundesliga. His 40 international goals make him the top active player and third all-time; look for the 28 year old to add to his total in Australia.
WHO WILL GO THROUGH?
At first glance it’s easy to say that Japan and Iraq will progress, and the same is true at second and third glance as well. Short of having their goalkeepers replaced by some of Australia’s many adorable yet dangerous wildlife, scenarios that see Japan failing to reach the knockout stage are few and far between. Iraq, despite hardly being in good form themselves, can rely on experience.
Of the two outliers, Jordan seem most likely to cause an upset and can recall having beaten Japan as recently as 2012 in a World Cup qualifier. Palestine too are fearless, and may find enough points from their West Asian brethren to put them in contention for their stated goal of reaching the knockout stage.
MATCH TO WATCH
All things being equal, the meeting of Iraq and Japan in Brisbane on January 16 should determine who finishes first in Group D, and by extension which team will avoid having to travel to Canberra for the quarterfinals rather than spend the knockout stage in the Sydney area. The matchup between the tournament’s last two champions will bring plenty of fireworks to Brisbane Stadium, as Iraq will hope to avenge their two most recent 1-0 losses to Japan in World Cup qualifying.