Two teams at opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of Asian Cup royalty meet in Dubai on Tuesday, as three-time winners Saudi Arabia take on North Korea, who finished fourth in 1980.
The Saudis are coming into the tournament on the back of a disappointing 2018 World Cup, while a youthful-looking Korean side appointed a 35-year-old new manager just last month.
Here, we look ahead to the game.
Can Saudi recover their reputation?
Heavyweights of Asia, there can be no doubt, but the Green Falcons are coming into the Asian Cup with their wings certainly clipped following a group stage exit at last summer’s World Cup.
Saudi are the joint-second most-successful nation at Asian Cups, having lifted three crowns, and they will have fond memories of the UAE, having hoisted their last title in the Emirates 23 years ago.
They are one of the favourites for the trophy and are the fourth highest ranked Asian nation in FIFA (69th, Iran are 29th, Japan 50th and South Korea 53rd).
Yet, there is can be no doubt Juan Antonio Pizzi’s men have something to prove. They left Russia with a morale-boosting 2-1 win over Mohamed Salah’s Egypt, but the 5-0 pummelling on opening night by the hosts will still be ringing in their ears.
Results since that fine victory over the Pharaohs have been decent, one defeat to the mighty Brazil punctuating an otherwise unbeaten five-game run. Stalwarts Osama Hawsawi and Taisir Al Jassim (138 and 134 caps respectively) have gone, ushering in a new era. Fahad Al Muwallad, who spent time on loan at La Liga’s Levante last season, leads the new wave. And they will know reputation needs to be restored.
Giving youth a chance
AFC #AsianCup UAE 2019— مجلس أبوظبي الرياضي (@AbuDhabiSC) 7 January 2019
North Korea 🇰🇵 Press Conference
Jong Il-gwan: We are ready for @SaudiNT 🇸🇦 as we have prepared ourselves to games of such calibre in our pre-tournament preparation. #BringingAsiaTogether pic.twitter.com/0kFqqg5vCi
Naming former players as coaches is nothing new – but not many get the top job aged just 35.
Former Norway striker Jorn Andersen declined to extend his two-year contract with Chollima just last month, resulting in national team selectors turning to a tenacious former midfielder who helped his nation qualify for just a second-ever World Cup in 2010 – Kim Yong-jun.
Despite his youthful years, Kim is no stranger to management, having taken charge of Pyongyang City, where he started his playing career, as long ago as 2010.
After leaving the post in 2013 he spent the next four years rising through the national ranks, acting as assistant of the under-16s, 17s and U-23 North Korea teams, although his selection to lead his country into the Asian Cup will have raised some eyebrows.
He has selected a young squad for the continental competition – only goalkeeper and captain Ri Myong-guk and defender Kim Song-gi are above 30.
Kim will be hoping for a better result from the last meeting between the two sides in the competition, when Saudi mauled Korea 4-1 in Melbourne in 2015.
Pizzi feels the Green Falcons’ rich history at the tournament will count for nothing in their opening clash with Korea.
“Previous results in this competition aren’t something we can depend on in tomorrow’s game,” said the 50-year-old, who won the Copa America with Chile in 2016. “I think history doesn’t count in this situation because you have to prove you are better than the opponent.”
The Koreans have not won a match at the Asian Cup since 1980 and boss Kim is expecting that to change in the UAE.
“Of course I am expecting us to have a better result than in our tournament history and I have told the players that every player has to be together and play with team spirit for all 90 minutes,” he said. “Everyone has to do their job.”
The Falcon has landed in Dubai. 😀 pic.twitter.com/6ExxnvMFVg— Saudi National Team (@SaudiNT_EN) 7 January 2019
PLAYER TO WATCH
Saudi have been blessed with wiry, wafer-thin wizards in recent years, and 21-year-old Ghareeb looks like he could be the latest off the production line. With the likes of Fahad Al Muwallad, Yahya Al Shehri and Salem Al Dawsari pulling the attacking strings, watch out for the Al Ahli Jeddah product should he get his chance.
The 5ft 5in forward has three goals in 13 games for Ahli this season and already has a goal at senior international level after earning five caps, having been rushed through the youth ranks.
Plenty of South Koreans have starred in European football, but stars from the north are few and far between. That might be about to change with 20-year-old forward Han, who joined Serie A side Cagliari’s academy in 2015 and has made a handful of league appearances while spending the last two seasons on loan at Perugia in the league below.
His agent Sandro Stemperini revealed in October that Italian behemoths Juventus allegedly tried to sign him last January. With just two caps to his name, can Han become an Asian Cup hero?
Srecko Katanec has promised those watching back home that Iraq will not disappoint at the Asian Cup.
The nation will forever be entwined with one of the most stunning stories in the competition’s history, with their 2007 success coming in the midst of such strife in the country.
While Katanec cannot guarantee a repeat, the Slovenian is confident his players will do him proud in their Group D opener against Vietnam.
“I promise the Iraqi people to do with what everything we can on the field,” said Katanec, whose side also faces Iran and Yemen in the group stage. “I have so much trust in our players.
“I know very well that the Iraq people love football and have so much enthusiasm. I promise I’ll choose the perfect XI for the game.”
This is just Vietnam’s fourth appearance in the tournament but, having conceded 28 goals in their 10 prior Asian Cup games, they were more resilient in defence during their recent AFF Suzuki Cup triumph.
Vietnam only faced 7.5 shots per game on the way to that success, meaning Iraq may find it tricky to get into areas where they can let fly.
However, ruling the roost of southeast Asia is one thing, the whole continent another, and centre-back Ahmed Ibrahim is confident his side can pick apart the Vietnamese back line in Abu Dhabi.
“We have concentrated on videos of the Vietnamese team and we know their defensive faults,” said Ibrahim. “We will try and use our knowledge tomorrow to get the three points and have a good start. We respect Vietnam and we respect their ambitions, but we are in a good mindset to win this game.”
South Korea opened their AFC Asian Cup 2019 campaign with a battling 1-0 win over the Philippines as they looked to reach a second straight final at the tournament.
The beaten 2015 finalists were made to work for their win by their opponents, who are making their Asian Cup debut, with Hwang Ui-jo’s goal midway through the second half finally breaking the deadlock after Philippines had done well to keep South Korea at bay.
Here’s a look at the talking points.
SOUTH KOREA MISS CUTTING EDGE
This game went largely as expected – South Korea had the majority of the possession, a whopping 82 per cent to be exact, and 16 shots to Philippines’ six. That this game ended only 1-0 should worry the Koreans.
Philippines goalkeeper Michael Falkesgaard made a couple of good stops to keep the score down, but that in itself is an indictment of South Korea’s poor finishing. And the fact that only five of those 16 shots were on target is another concerning statistic.
Too many of Korea’s attacks failed in the final third, as they tried to be too intricate with their passing in trying to find a way through the Philippines defence. Simply put, the Koreans will have to be more clinical if they are to make the final again.
The absence of a certain Tottenham forward must have had something to do with it, but this was a chance for the team to show how well they can play without Son Heung-min. On this evidence, they’ll struggle to finish teams off without the cutting edge Son provides.
PHILIPPINES ACQUIT THEMSELVES WELL IN DEBUT
Philippines didn’t look like a team making their Asian Cup debut on Monday. Though they had only 18 per cent of the ball, that seemed like a part of a tactical plan that, for some more clinical attacking themselves, could even have worked to perfection. They had their chances, with one vicious volley drawing a good save from Korea keeper Kim Seung-gyu in the first half.
Jose Mourinho would have been proud if one of his teams played like this, even despite the result, so Sven-Goran Eriksson certainly has every right to feel the same way. If they can replicate this performance against Kyrgyzstan and China, they may even pull off a famous result during this tournament, one that would give Philippines football a real lift.
GROUP MAY NOT BE STROLL FOR TOP TWO
South Korea and China looked nailed on to finish as the top two in this group, with the game between them looming large as a decider for top spot. But Monday’s results show neither side can take the two supposedly weaker teams for granted.
China had to come back from a one-goal deficit to beat Kyrgyzstan, and this game was no walk in the park for Korea either, with Philippines making the Asian giants earn the points.
In fairness both Korea and China will expect to put in improved performances in the next round of fixtures, and even without that both would expect to win and go into their clash in the final game of the group on six points. But Monday should be enough evidence for both to know that they won’t have it all their own way in what was expected to be an easy group.