There will be no Son Heung-min in sight on Monday when South Korea begin their 2019 Asian Cup-campaign against Sven-Goran Eriksson’s debutants from the Philippines.
This has given ex-Portugal boss Paulo Bento a headache as he tries to press his credentials with a strong start in Group C at Dubai’s lavishly renovated Al Maktoum Stadium.
Here are the talking points ahead of this Group C-clash:
Getting the Hwang of it
Son is Asia’s only true global superstar, but a gentleman’s agreement to avoid national conscription through victory at the summer’s Asian Games means he will not be present until January 16’s pool finale against China.
In the meantime, Hwang Ui-jo looks likely to get the nod up top – potentially in an unorthodox 3-4-2-1 formation.
Unsurprisingly, the 26-year-old is not a like-for-like replacement. His errant side foot from six-yards out helped ensure a goalless final warm-up against Saudi Arabia.
He did, however, score an impressive 16 times in 27 matches during the 2018 J1 League with Gamba Osaka to finish third-top scorer.
Korea’s time is coming?
It is one of football’s longest droughts.
Korea claimed the opening pair of Asian Cups in 1956 and 1960 – and nothing since.
They came exceptionally close in the previous edition under Uli Stielike, losing 2-1 in extra time to hosts Australia. But after nine-consecutive World Cups, this dry spell is an anomaly.
Talent remains in the ranks to end this run, despite serious injuries to creative players in Al Duhail’s Nam Tae-hee and Dijon’s Kwon Chang-hoon.
Now is the time for the likes of 109-cap Ki Sung-yueng and Holsten Kiel midfielder Lee Jae-sung to make good on their talents – beginning with the Philippines.
Are the Azkals all bite and no bark?
The Philippines have banked on experience to guide them through their tournament bow.
Ex-Sampdoria, Lazio and England supremo Eriksson is an iconic name, albeit one on the decline now aged 70. But since his October arrival on a short-term deal, he’s spoken of being invigorated by the challenge.
A fourth semi-final in five tournaments at the winter’s AFF Suzuki Cup was a decent achievement for the basketball-mad nation.
Hopes of building on this performance, however, are tempered by the absence of Cardiff City goalkeeper Neil Etheridge.
Against Korea, the knowledge of K-League stalwart Alvaro Silva will be vital at centre-back.
But their defining fixtures come against China and Kyrgyzstan. Progression as one of the four-best third-placed finishers is a viable proposition.
India kicked off their Asian Cup campaign in style, getting their first win in the competition since 1964 as they blew Thailand away in the second half en route to a 4-1 victory.
Two goals from Sunil Chhetri plus sumptuous finishes from Anirudh Thapa and Jeje Lalpekhlua helped India get over a poor first half display and go top of their group.
Here’s a look at the talking points from the Group A-encounter.
INDIA’S SECOND-HALF BLUEPRINT SENDS WARNING
India were somewhat lucky to go into the break with the scores level. Their penalty was fortunate, their defence was poor enough that they could have easily conceded more than the one goal they did, and overall, though they are ranked 20 places higher, they were easily the worse side in the first half.
Thailand had all the time in the world in midfield, and India’s goal came against the run of play.
Whatever manager Stephen Constantine said at half-time completely changed the game. India came out with a renewed purpose in the second half, swarming their opponents with an energy and intensity that had been missing in the opening period.
It helped that they scored within a minute, forcing Thailand to come out and attack and allowing India to play on the counter. But even that was an indication of the difference in intent, as their desire to take the game by the scruff of its neck stunned Thailand. That they scored a third and fourth came as no surprise based on their second-half performance.
If India can replicate this over a full game against the UAE on Thursday, especially that fast start, the hosts will be in trouble.
CHHETRI GETS THE GOALS BUT ASHIQUE THE STAR
Fun fact: Sunil Chhetri now has more international goals than Lionel Messi.
The Indian talisman’s brace here took his tally to 67, after he started the game level with Messi on 65.
Chhetri’s status as India’s greatest-ever footballer has already been cemented, and Sunday’s brace only added to the legend, helping India to a win that took them to the top of their group and put them in a strong position to qualify to the next round, given that UAE and Bahrain could only manage a draw.
But on Sunday, he owed a debt to a surprise starter, and Constantine for making a gutsy call.
Lalpekhlua has been one of India’s rising stars over the last four years, but he hadn’t scored for the national team in ten months.
So Constantine took the decision to drop him and play Ashique Kuruniyan alongside Chhetri, and it proved to be an inspired choice. The 21-year-old ran the channels well, harried Thailand’s defenders throughout, and was impressive with his link-up play with his legendary strike partner.
For good measure, Lalpekhlua came on and scored as a substitute. But the way the Chhetri-Kuruniyan partnership flourished will have left Constantine feeling vindicated.
THAILAND LEFT TO RUE MISSED OPPORTUNITY
A win would have been an upset for Thailand based on the rankings, but it wouldn’t have been entirely unexpected – India last won against Thailand in 1986.
And the way they settled into the game in the first half, after a nervy start, would have given them confidence. They had the India defence scrambling at times, forced Gurpreet Singh Sandhu into a superb point-blank save, and probably should have scored more than once.
That their lone goal was an equaliser will also rankle, not just because India scored almost out of nothing, but also because the penalty awarded against Theerathon Bunmathan was debatable – the ball ricocheting onto his hand from barely a yard away.
It was to their credit that they got over that quickly, continued to dominate, and got a goal, but they will wonder what could have been, had they converted their dominance into more goals and not gotten the wrong end of the stick with a refereeing decision.
As the lowest-ranked side in the group, Thailand need those breaks to go their way in order to have any hopes of qualifying for the knockout. On Sunday, they didn’t.
Team Melli won an unprecedented three tournaments in a row between 1968 and 1976 – they are joint second for most titles lifted with Saudi Arabia – but have not hoisted the continental crown since that last home soil triumph 43 years ago.
Former Manchester United assistant coach Queiroz has been in charge of Iran for eight years and his side come into the tournament as one of the favourites – but after seeing Jordan upset holders Australia 1-0 in Al Ain on Sunday, the Portuguese is not getting carried away with that tag.
“This is football. You cannot play a football game with a credit card of being favourites. If you don’t play good football, you don’t deserve to win,” said Queiroz, who led Iran at the 2014 and 2018 World Cups.
“We came here to play good games and we have to if we want to defeat any team. Yemen are a good side and we have to respect them.
“At the same time, I am confident that my team, despite some injuries, will deliver as I always challenge them to play responsibly so that when they leave the pitch, they leave with the fans happy.”
Yemen are at the other end of the scale in terms of tournament pedigree. They are making their Asia Cup bow and head coach Jan Kocian says his team are eager to get going against one of Asia’s heavyweights.
“The world knows Iran. They had a great World Cup and in Carlos Queiroz, one of the best coaches in the world. We are, however, not going to let that get to us,” said the former Czech Republic international.
“There is no pressure on the team and, as a ‘small’ team, we are allowed to dream and that dream is to defeat Iran.”
Another world famous manager appearing in the UAE this month is Italy’s 2006 World Cup-winning coach Marcello Lippi, although he has rather smaller ambitions in terms of what he hopes his China team can achieve.
They were runners-up in 1984 and 2004 yet Lippi hopes China can be a surprise package at the Asian Cup.
“We know that in a competition like this there are favourites like (South) Korea, Japan, Iran and Australia, but in this kind of competition you always have a surprise team,” said the 70-year-old former Juventus and Inter Milan boss.
“So we really can become the surprise of this tournament, because it’s now seven years that I have worked in China and I really want to give this big satisfaction to all the Chinese fans.”
China, ranked 76th in the world, are favourites to beat Central Asian minnows Kyrgyzstan at Al Ain’s Zayed bin Khalifa Stadium on Monday, but captain Zheng Zhi is suspended with Lippi revealing forwards Wei Shihao and Xiao Zhi are missing through injury.
Like Yemen, Kyrgyzstan are making their first Asian Cup appearance but coach Aleksandr Krestinin believes that while his side will be underdogs, he reminded critics the match will be won and lost on the pitch.
“Obviously China has a very experienced coach who is a world champion, but he was not the world champion with China,” said the Russian tactician.
“We don’t remember China winning anything in recent years. (Us not being favourites to win) is the opinion of the Chinese media, but the score is currently 0-0 and we will see what happens.”