Group B represents a good opportunity for those nations that have not had great success in the tournament before. Only Saudi Arabia has been triumphant in the continental showpiece, winning three times, the last of which was in 1996 during the country’s ‘golden age’. Unfortunately those days seem quite distant to the Saudi’s having failed to qualify for the last two World Cups after qualifying for the preceding four. Their first World Cup appearance was their legendary and last 16 performance at USA ’94.
Nowadays the Saudi football team seem further from emulating that ‘golden age’ than Saaed Al-Owairan was to the goal when he started that famous mazy run against Belgium in ’94. We also continue to miss the exploits of Asian Goalkeeper of the century Mohamed Al-Deayea.
Recent tournament despair as the host nation in the Gulf Cup of Nations to World Cup 2022 host Qatar, as well as the latest pre-Asian Cup friendly defeats to the Bahrain and the heavily fancied to do well South Koreans, leaves Saudi Arabia with little momentum heading into the Asian Cup.
But there is hope as their top domestic club side Al Hilal reached the final of the Asian Champions League only to narrowly lose out to Western Sydney Wanderers. Al Hilal’s team includes 2014 Asian Footballer of the Year and Saudi star striker Nasser Al-Shamrani, his performances for Al Hilal particularly in the Asian Champions League and recent goals in the Gulf Cup helped his side and nation reach the final in both.
However, Al-Shamrani position in the frontline may well be considered a volatile one. Especially given his recent exploits that involved pushing a fan in the aforementioned defeat to Bahrain alongside that of what cumulated to a eight-game ban for a combination of spitting and headbutting (A horribly destructive combo) whilst playing against Australian opponents the Wanderers. Nevertheless, Saudi Arabia will be relying on him to provide them with the goals to make it into the latter stages of the tournament for the first time since 2007 when they were defeated finalists, losing out to first-time champs Iraq.
China, coached by former Portsmouth manager Alain Perrin, have been called a sleeping giant in the football world and improving performances see them carry an eight-game unbeaten run into the tournament. Perrin has installed a tough, difficult-to-beat attitude about the national team whose squad is entirely comprised of domestic players.
As the Chinese Super League continues to build on its 10-year success, so does the league’s most successful team, Guangzhou Evergrande, who recently replaced Marcelo Lippi with his own World Cup winning captain Paolo Cannovaro. Lippi’s tenure at Evergrande undoubtedly improved the club’s Chinese contingent and the Asian Cup squad boasts seven players from the club, including the only player over-30, captain Zheng Zhi. China will be relying on his experience and that of their French coach to bring the nation through a group that is very winnable for the country of a population of 1.3 billion.
The group will see China take on secluded neighbours and tournament dark horses North Korea. The nation is nicknamed the Chollima, which is the thousand-mile winged horse and indicates the strength and speed of the North Koreans running and stamina on the field. The Chollima also display the usual collective grit and steel associated with countries that fall under communist dictatorships.
They’re a team whose striker Jong Ill-Gwan is one of the continents rising stars; the 2010 young Asian Player of the Year 22-year-old has been linked with moves to Europe with a particular strong rumour of a move to Newcastle in 2012, but nothing as of yet has materialized. His goals were key in the recent Asian Games U-23 team that reached the final, which he was suspended for, only to be defeated by rivals and hosts South Korea.
North Korea as a country represents an ‘us versus the rest of the world’ mentality and this carries through to their tactics on the pitch. A direct fast-paced dogged counter attacking side is a match for any opponent in Group B and the Asian Cup in general.
The final outfit in Group B is the industrious Uzbekistan. Edged out of automatic qualification for the 2014 World Cup by one point by South Korea, which had followed a table-topping AFC Round 3 qualification finishing above Japan and eliminating North Korea. The White Wolves have been steadily improving since their independent formation in 1992. Testament to this is their fourth place finish at the last Asian Cup, narrowly losing out 3-2 to South Korea once again.
The Uzbek defence can call upon experienced and wily left-back Vitaliy Denisov of Lokomotiv Moscow that gives them a strong base and one that is difficult to break down. Further up the field midfielder and captain Server Djeparov provides the creatively for the team that sometimes lacks a punch up front. If they can get the goals they will qualify from the group.
Group B is the toughest group to call; with no clear favourite and some defensively minded teams the group winners and runners-up will come down to a couple of one nil wins. I think the doggedness of North Korea will see them through as group winner and Uzbekistan to follow them, just bettering the results of China to qualify on goal-difference.
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