2015 AFC Asian Cup Group C & D: Team-by-team guide

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Up for grabs: The Asian Cup.

With the showpiece of Asian football kicking off in Australia on Friday, our reporter Matt Monaghan guides us through the teams competing in Groups A and B. 

– 2015 AFC Asian Cup Group A & B: Team-by-team guide

GROUP C

UAE 
Coach: Mahdi Ali 

Best finish: Runners-up (1996) 
Star player: Omar Abdulrahman 

One to watch: Mohamed Abdulrahman 
Strengths: Solid unit, well-honed under coach Ali. Boast fantastic resources of talent and know how to play competitive matches. 
Weaknesses: Team look tired after three years of non-stop action. 
Star man: Omar Abdulrahman struggling to be fit in time for Qatar opener. 
Verdict: Asia’s fifth-highest ranked team by FIFA, so should be competitive. Semi-final run possible.

BAHRAIN 
Coach: Marjan Eid
Best finish: Fourth place (2004)
Star player: Mohamed Husain

One to watch: Abdulla Helal 
Strengths: Can only improve after dire Gulf Cup campaign under Adnan Hamad. Number of experienced players are back in squad.
Weaknesses: Real dearth of talent compared to group rivals. Can caretaker Eid inspire them? 
Verdict: Look like cannon fodder in the competition’s toughest pool. Even a win looks unlikely.

IRAN 
Coach: Carlos Queiroz
Best finish: Champions (1968, 1972, 1976)
Star player: Reza Ghoochannejhad

One to watch: Sardar Azmoun 
Strengths: Queiroz has made the Princes of Persia incredibly hard to beat, with Argentina’s last-gasp World Cup victory as evidence.
Weaknesses: Obvious counter point is lack of goals. Iran media are also no friends of Queiroz, leading to poisonous atmosphere.
Verdict: Have nous to challenge for the title. Potential semi-final with Australia is one to watch.
 

QATAR 
Coach: Djamel Belmadi
Best finish: Quarter-finals (2000, 2011)
Star player: Khalfan Ibrahim

One to watch: Boualem Khoukhi 
Strengths: Belmadi has engineered a tight side able to flourish on the counter-attack through inventive Ibrahim and Khoukhi.
Weaknesses: If flair players are not at best, can look very one-dimensional. No natural replacement for discarded Sebastian Soria up top.
Verdict: November’s Gulf Cup win could take them far. Anything possible if progress past daunting group. 

GROUP C 

JAPAN 
Coach: Javier Aguirre
Best finish: Champions (1992, 2000, 2004, 2011)
Star player: Keisuke Honda

One to watch: Hiroshi Kiyotake  
Strengths: An established force in world football, nearly half the players play abroad. Position as holders gives belief.
Weaknesses: No outstanding forward to convert chances from delightful midfield.
Verdict: The champions will take some stopping Down Under. The team to beat.
 

JORDAN 
Coach: Ray Wilkins
Best finish: Quarterfinal (2004, 2011)
Star player: Odai Al Saify
One to watch: Khalil Bani Attiah  
Strengths: An underrated force in Asian football, only defeat to Uruguay in play-off preventing World Cup 2014 appearance.
Weaknesses: Recent form is awful, losing seven of last 10 matches.
Verdict: If Wilkins can return Jordan to their best, could be dark horses for competition.

IRAQ 
Coach: Radhi Shenaishil
Best finish: Champions (2007)
Star player: Humam Tariq

One to watch: Justin Meram 
Strengths: On-loan boss Shenaishil has a young squad, eager to prove themselves after November’s awful Gulf Cup showing.
Weaknesses: Onus is on veteran Younus Mahmood to score, but striker is without a club.
Verdict: A quarter-final exit would be a creditable return from the Lions of Mesopotamia.

PALESTINE 
Coach: Ahmed Al Hassan
Best finish: N/A
Star player: Ashraf Al Fawaghra

One to watch: Mahmoud Dhadha  
Strengths: Still riding wave from 2014 AFC Challenge Cup victory. Striker Al Fawaghra is proven in Saudi Arabian top flight.
Weaknesses: One of lowestranked teams in competition. Coach Al Hassan was only installed in October.
Verdict: Group D is Asian Cup’s weakest, but it will still be too tall an order to advance.

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2015 AFC Asian Cup Group A & B: Team-by-team guide

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Up for grabs: The Asian Cup.

With the showpiece of Asian football kicking off in Australia on Friday, our reporter Matt Monaghan guides us through the teams competing in Groups A and B. 

– 2015 AFC Asian Cup Group C & D: Team-by-team guide

GROUP A

AUSTRALIA  
Coach: Ange Postecoglou

Best finish: Runnersup (2011)
Star player: Mile Jedinak

One to watch: Tommy Oar 
Strengths: As hosts, can count on fevered support. Mile Jedinak and Tim Cahill provide huge experience.
Weaknesses: Next generation has failed to fill boots of Harry Kewell, Mark Viduka etc. Can struggle badly for goals.
Verdict: Capable of going all the way. Kind draw makes run to the final very possible.

SOUTH KOREA 
Coach: Uli Stielike
Best finish: Champions (1956, 1960)
Star player: Son Heung-min

One to watch: Nam Tae-hee 
Strengths: Firmly established as one of Asia’s powerhouses. Young squad possesses experience of many top leagues.
Weaknesses: The Taegeuk Warriors were dreadful at the recent World Cup. Confidence could be a problem.
Verdict: Will progress through group but struggle to impose themselves against the best.

OMAN 
Coach: Paul Le Guen
Best finish: Group stage (2004, 2007)
Star player: Ali Al Habsi

One to watch: Raed Saleh 
Strengths: Have worked for three years under Le Guen. Are on upwards curve, finishing fourth in November’s Gulf Cup.
Weaknesses: Real lack of genuine quality in squad. Star striker Amad Al Hosni has only recently returned from injury.
Verdict: Will need an upset to get through group. South Korea clash is vital to their hopes.

KUWAIT 
Coach: Nabil Maaloul
Best finish: Champions (1980)
Star player: Aziz Mashaan

One to watch: Yousef Nasser 
Strengths: Al Wahda’s Hussain Fadel is a rock at the back, while they possess decent attacking options
Weaknesses: The new coach has had very little time to work with his troops.
Verdict: This is a new dawn for Al Azraq under Maaloul. Look weakest team in group, will struggle to progess.

GROUP B 

NORTH KOREA 
Coach: Jo Tong-sop
Best finish: Fourth place (1980)
Star player: Jong Tae-Se

One to watch: Pak Kwang-Ryong 
Strengths: Squad is slowly broadening horizons, with players plying trade in Switzerland, South Korea and Japan.
Weaknesses: Have lost four of last five meetings with Asian heavyweights. Lack of inspirational figures on roster.
Verdict: Will need to be at best to make knockout stage. Not beyond their capabilities to do so.

UZBEKISTAN 
Coach: Mirjalol Qosimov
Best finish: Fourth place (2011)
Star player: Server Djeparov

One to watch: Igor Sergeev 
Strengths: Well-organised team on the rise. Came so close to World Cup qualification.
Weaknesses: This could be the last stand for a number of key players. Could be perfect time to play or a tournament too far.
Verdict: More than capable of progressing deep into competition. Potential quarter-final with South Korea is mouthwatering.

CHINA 
Coach: Alain Perrin
Best finish: Runners-up (1984, 2004)
Star player: Zheng Zhi

One to watch: Liao Lisheng 
Strengths: Core of Guangzhou Evergrande players provide solid spine. Captain Zhi still an inspiration, while Marcello Lippifavourite Zhang Linpeng is a rock.
Weaknesses: Dearth of goals in squad. Have faltered regularly on international stage in recent years.
Verdict: Are a powerhouse waiting to happen but seems time is still to come. Will compete with Uzbeks and Saudis to progress from group.
 

SAUDI ARABIA 
Coach: Cosmin Olaroiu 
Best finish: Champions (1984, 1988, 1996)
Star player: Nasser Al Shamrani

One to watch: Salem Al Dawsari 
Strengths: Boast Asia’s finest player in Al Shamrani. Huge untapped talent in squad.
Weaknesses: Warm-up results under temporary boss Olaroiu have been disastrous. Volatile squad never too far from imploding.
Verdict: It is so difficult to predict what the Falcons will do. Have talent to win whole thing, but too often struggle to put it all together.

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#360view: Asian Cup presents chance for Ali to prove himself

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The first pages of a vital chapter in UAE football history are set to be written in the next three weeks.

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Succeed at the Asian Cup and the path to World Cup 2018 qualification appears wide open.

This journey has seemed preordained; a talented group of players maturing through the various age groups alongside coach Mahdi Ali up to the point where the nation can hope to compete with the globe’s finest for the first time since featuring at Italia ‘90.

But an underwhelming 2014 has seen the onus shifted back onto coach Ali to prove he is the man to continue this quest, the lack of a new contract providing extra personal importance for the impending tournament in Australia.

Such has been the rapid rate of development previously enjoyed under the 49-year-old former UAE midfielder’s tutelage – from his time with the Under-23s at the London 2012 Olympics to his successful integration with the seniors – this situation has previously existed unquestioned.

The highs of the Gulf Cup triumph in 2013 and the surge through Asian Cup qualification made it look unstoppable, the narrative of glory secure.

Cracks, however slight, started to emerge last year.

A step up in class of opponent since the end of the 2013-14 domestic season saw two friendly defeats to Armenia and
Uzbekistan, four dour draws against Norway, Lithuania, Paraguay and Australia, plus a solitary, barely-deserved triumph against Georgia.

Happier days: UAE won the 2013 Gulf Cup.

Subsequently, a fitful Gulf Cup defence in November, which ended at the semi-final stage against hosts Saudi Arabia, has not helped. A new contract first stated as being close to finalised last summer, which would extend his stay beyond June 2015 until 2019, remains unsigned.

Further intrigue has been provided by the fact Ali spoke so confidently at last month’s squad announcement that a contract
extension would be confirmed prior to travelling Down Under.

This talk has proved hollow with UAE Football Association president Yousif Al Serkal last Sunday being forced to rally against the notion that doubts have crept into the governing body’s thoughts regarding their coach.

Reports, which have since been rejected, state the prospect of a new board being elected in 2016 is behind the reticence.

Why lumber them with a man they might not want? Judging by Al Serkal’s words, this scenario bares no relation to fact.

But what is clear is that the Whites are on a clearly-defined drive to raise standards ahead of the World Cup in 2018.

The rise to being the fifth-highest ranked Asian nation by FIFA is only the start, not the end, for a team and federation energised by a burning ambition to crown their massive improvement with a return to world football’s premier competition.

Friendly opponents are now largely drawn from Europe and South America, a glamour clash with Luis Suarez’s Uruguay to come in March.

When the first stage of the newly combined qualifiers for the World Cup and the 2019 Asian Cup get under way in the summer, the UAE are expected to set the pace rather than chase.

These are not fanciful demands or pie-in-the-sky thoughts.

There is a genuine class and depth to Ali’s squad with talents such as Al Ain playmaker Omar Adulrahman and Al Jazira hot shot Ali Mabkhout among the finest on the continent.

Prior to Ali’s confirmation two years ago, Emiratis had last been regularly trusted with the permanent national manager’s post in the mid-1970s.

A poor Asian Cup campaign could see the return of the thought that big-name foreigners know best, an eminently possible
scenario given a tough Group C containing World Cup 2014 finalists Iraq, Gulf Cup holders Qatar and Bahrain.

Yet, to soar in spite of this draw and Ali looks immovable. Slump, and the insatiable desire for progress could leave him behind.

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