No clear favourites for Asian Cup title after group stage
Melbourne, Jan 21 (Xinhua): After 24 matches and 61 goals, an evenly matched Asian Cup is still no closer to finding out its clear favourites following the group stage. While the likes of South Korea, China, Iran and Japan entered the quarter-finals with perfect records, each have shown they have deficiencies and each will remain wary of their opposition in the final eight, reports Xinhua.
Australia, Uzbekistan, the United Arab Emirates and Iraq join the aforementioned four in the knockout phases, having all endured at least one defeat in the tournament thus far.
However, each have their strengths that could see the endless amount of entertainment and quality, continue into the latter stages of the Asian Cup.
Group A leaders South Korea are yet to concede a goal but the Uli Stielike-coached side seemed to have difficulties finding the target. South Korea just scored three goals in three matches and the side will rely heavily on the talents of Bayer Leverkusen striker Son Heung-Min.
With Group B winners China eagerly awaiting Australia in a highly anticipated quarter-final clash in Brisbane, the hosts will need to improve their output and prove they're not overly reliant on 35-year-old striker Tim Cahill.
China are on a surprise run of victories, recording the best opening in their Asian Cup history. Alain Perrin's young squad looked like it would have its hands full in a difficult group, but has impressed from the outset. If a 1-0 victory over Saudi Arabia to open the tournament wasn't exciting enough for the Chinese fans, a second successive win over a highly fancied Uzbekistan team dispelled all doubts over their ability to go far in the Asian Cup.
Uzbekistan came into the Asian Cup ranked fourth in the continent and aimed to prove they were able to match it with the heavyweights. However, a slender victory over North Korea and a defeat to China quickly put their position in the next round under threat.
Finally, inspired by Sardor Rashidov's double, they overcame a plucky Saudi Arabian side 3-1 in Melbourne to book their place in the knockout stages. It was an improved performance; however a difficult clash against South Korea awaits.
In Group C, Iran may have snatched top spot at the death, relying on Reza Ghoochannejhad's late goal to defeat the United Arab Emirates 1-0 in their final match, but they are slow to build their way into the tournament.
A rock solid defence, led by Morteza Pouraliganji, and an outstanding midfield, inspired by the talent of captain Javad Nekounam, has seen them keep three clean sheets to go through to the quarter-finals on top.
If they can sharpen their game, they may be difficult to beat.
The United Arab Emirates have proved the surprise packet of the tournament so far, led by arguably the Asian Cup's most talented player Omar Abdulrahman.
The gifted No.10 nearly inspired the Arab nation to the top of the group with a series of sensational individual performances. However he was often let down by his teammates not carrying the same quality as he possesses.
Qatar, who entered the tournament as a dark horse, never quite got their campaign going. A 1-4 thrashing at the hands of Omar's United Arab Emirates in the first match all but signalled the end of their Asian Cup, with a disappointing 1-2 defeat to Bahrain in their final match reflecting their campaign as a whole.
Finally, in Group D, Japan were the clear standouts, barely needing to find a second gear as they eased through the group stages without raising a sweat. Comfortable victories over Palestine, Iraq and Jordan were achieved in a professional manner, with the likes of Keisuke Honda and Shinji Kagawa ready to light up the latter stages of the competition.
Heading into the tournament as the 13th seed, Iraq are the fairytale story of the Asian Cup so far. The lively Yaser Kasim in midfield proved the inspiration for a 1-0 victory over Jordan in the first match and that, ultimately, was enough to see them progress.
Palestine, meanwhile, leave their first Asian Cup campaign without a point, but with plenty of memorable experiences under their belt.
So far, there have been 24 matches and 24 straight victories for teams in the Asian Cup. Expect the contests to get a lot tighter and a lot more hard fought as the tournament reaches its thrilling conclusion.