Two of the Far East’s biggest powers will meet at Al Nayhan Stadium on Wednesday – but both will be saving their full force for the knockout rounds.
Indeed, two of the biggest stories could be sitting in the stands …
Prodigal Son returns
South Korea coach Paulo Bento will have been wincing for every knock and tumble Son Heung-min has taken in the Premier League over the last month.
Don’t let their six points out of six in Group C fool you, though. Son is needed, and badly.
The Taegeuk Warriors mustered 16 attempts against the Philippines and a further 19 in their clash with Kyrgyzstan, but have just two 1-0 wins to show for it.
The main culprit is Hwang Ui-jo, who despite scoring the goal that downed the Philippines, has taken nine more shots than any other player in the Korean squad (13).
Meanwhile, Son has just put the finishing touches on a run with Tottenham that has seen him rack up nine goals in his last dozen games.
Bento, however, insisted he is controlling the urge to expect too much from Son too soon, given his first full training session only game on the eve of this match.
“He had a second training session with the team later (on Tuesday) and we will see how he fares before deciding,” said Bento, who may be without key winger Lee Jae-sung for the round of 16 due to a foot injury. “For that matter, any changes that we make to the team will not be because we are resting players but it will be for our strategy.
“Of course we know how many matches he has played the last (few) months. We also know that he is a very important player for our team.”
So if South Korea deliver another uninspiring display in Abu Dhabi on Wednesday without Son, just remember that arguably the tournament’s best player will be waiting in the wings.
Hurt under the collar
The pictures circulating in the Chinese media after victory over Kyrgyzstan did not look pretty for Wu Lei. His collarbone was in a position that you wouldn’t describe as natural, but last year’s Chinese Super League top goal-scorer has proceeded to grit his teeth and get on with it.
That pluck showed up in the subsequent fixture with the Philippines, providing two delicious strikes in the 3-0 win.
Marcello Lippi will rest his star forward and it shouldn’t be a huge blow – whoever loses faces a beatable Thailand – but unfortunately no amount of time is likely to fully heal the 27-year-old.
Shanghai newspaper Jiefang Daily has reported that surgery will ultimately be required but, as for the Asian Cup, Lippi is planning on his star forward being around for the duration.
“I saw the news that Wu Lei was to have surgery in China, but the truth is he will stay with us and he can play in our next games,” said the legendary former Juventus and Italy coach. “Our medical team have good communication with the medical team of (Wu’s club) Shanghai SIPG, and we know that Wu is getting better.
“We already know that if we finish second, we will play Thailand. If we win the group, we have to wait to see who our opponents will be. It doesn’t matter to us as whoever we face will probably be of the same standard as Thailand.”
Much like Son and South Korea, China’s hopes rest on the injured collarbone of a man who has scored seven goals in his last 13 internationals. We may see what they lack without him.
Tom Rogic emerged as the injury-time hero for champions Australia thanks to a rocket that confirmed his nation’s spot in the knockouts with a 3-2 win, and condemned World Cup 2018 qualifying rivals Syria to early elimination.
Winger Awer Mabil blasted the Socceroos ahead on 41 minutes, only for 2017 AFC Player of the Year Omar Khrbin to level up less than 120 seconds later at the second attempt. In a contentious second period, Chris Ikonomidis’ back-post effort was adjudged to have crept in and then Omar Al Somah smashed in a penalty-kick that he won for an apparent trip.
Syria appeared poised to remain in the mix for one of the four-best third-placed spots, only for playmaker Rogic to lash home from 20 yards. Another late heartbreak – Tim Cahill’s extra-time header in October 2017 ended their global aspirations – saw the supposed tournament dark horses sink to last place after Palestine drew 0-0 with Group B winners Jordan.
Here are the talking points from a rollercoaster match at Khalifa bin Zayed Stadium:
ROGIC STANDS UP TO BE COUNTED
Mile Jedinak’s retirement and Aaron Mooy’s injury left a spot vacant to be the Socceroos’ main man.
Celtic schemer Rogic was preordained to fill this role – and he’s delivered in the UAE. Since the false start – and 1-0 defeat – against Jordan, he’s come up with a glorious assist for Jamie Maclaren in the 3-0 recovery against Palestine and man-of-the-match display against Syria.
Another deep cross picked out Ikonomidis, via dumbfounding defending by Hussein Jwayed, to put Australia ahead at 2-1. Even better was to come when he produced a blistering winner in the 93rd minute.
SYRIA’S TOURNAMENT TO FORGET
After war-torn Syria came together in trying circumstances to make the play-offs for the World Cup, they instantly became favoured for success in the Emirates.
Instead, a tournament stained with regrets has played out. Influential captain Firas Al Khatib’s injury on the eve was allied with disruption for winger Mahmoud Al Mawas – his only start came on Tuesday.
Not even the desperate dismissal of head coach Bernd Stange after last week’s 1-0 loss to Jordan could kick-start them.
SOCCEROOS’ WEAK CASE FOR THE DEFENCE
It was a moment centre-back Milos Degenek will not savour.
His failure to mark potential Al Hilal team-mate Khrbin, when he was expected to grasp responsibility in the absence of the banned Trent Sainsbury, was illuminating.
This was similarly poor to midfielder Massimo Luongo’s meek challenge in the air during the 1-0 loss to Jordan. Take note, round-of-16 opponents Uzbekistan or Japan.
India became the first team to crash out of the AFC Asian Cup after their 1-0 defeat to Bahrain on Monday.
The Blue Tigers initially showed promise after a thumping 4-1 win over Thailand. Against UAE, India put up a valiant fight and made the hosts work extremely hard for their win.
However, a disastrous performance against Bahrain means India will have to wait another four years before getting a crack at their first taste of the Asian Cup knockouts.
We take a look at some of the talking points from India’s campaign.
THE SLEEPING GIANTS WAKE UP AND HIT THE SNOOZE BUTTON
If you had told an Indian football fan prior to the tournament that his team would gather three points and register a non-negative goal difference, he would gladly take it. But who would have thought that these figures would not be enough to qualify for the knockouts, despite four slots open for the best third placed team in the six groups?
India did exceed expectations, considering they were just four minutes away from finishing in second place. Long described as the ‘sleeping giants’, the Blue Tigers did wake up in this tournament, but hit the snooze button to resume with the deep slumber.
The show against Thailand and UAE was promising but a spineless performance against Bahrain rendered the initial efforts useless.
India were on the backfoot from the word go on Monday and never looked like they wanted take initiative.
No departed head coach Stephen Constantine might claim otherwise, but there is no denying India played for a draw in their last game, as it would have been good enough. You never, ever play for a draw in football and Constantine paid the price.
This tournament will always be remembered as the one that could have been.
DEFENCE STANDS TALL
The goal conceded against Bahrain came from a penalty. The goals conceded to UAE came from the two occasions the UAE managed to get the ball behind the India defence. It’s safe to say that the backline emerges as the standout department for India in their Asian Cup campaign.
Tactically, it was a negative move to play for a draw. But the Indian defence deserves massive credit for holding Bahrain for 90 minutes. There was a hole in India’s midfield and Bahrain were allowed to threaten India’s box without being offered any resistance in midfield.
Yet, the defence – led by Sandesh Jhingan – stood tall and nodded away any danger that came their way. Jhingan had a massive game and was arguably the best player on the pitch for India in that game and the tournament as a whole.
With his partner at the heart, Anas Edathodika taken off early on due to an injury, it was never going to be easy for Jhingan to keep a cleansheet. Yet, the cenre-half fought till the last drop of sweat and ensured that India did not go back without a fight.
Pritam Kotal, Subhasish Boseand Anas had a good tournament too, as they set up a defensive line which was very hard to break.
After a couple of blunders against UAE, keeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu redeemed himself against Bahrain with a wonderful game sans failure to save the penalty.
The custodian – who is great with his feet – almost always found Udanta Singh on the wing with his accurate long passes, and played a huge role in creating chances in quick counters.
The defence as a whole and Jhingan in particular can pat themselves on the back for a brave show in the UAE.
THE PROGRESS IS SLOW BUT THE DIRECTION IS RIGHT?
We have already established that India exceeded expectations with their performance at the Asian Cup. The first two games serve as evidence to the fact that India were in fact brave enough to execute a mid-block instead of defending deep.
India compromised experience for youth and to an extent it did work out, as quite a few youngsters showed promise of a bright future with some appreciable performances.
Udanta Singh was a constant threat on the right-wing and proved a menace for the Thailand and UAE defence. Pace, decision-making, good reading of the game, the 22-year-old had it all.
Sunil Chhetri’s striking partner Asique Kuruniyan would be another pick of the bunch. The striker can be branded as a top three player for India in this tournament. The 21-year-old was great at holding the ball, pressing the opposition and latching on to the 50-50 balls. A workhorse that he is, Kuruniyan justified his surprising inclusion in the starting line-up.
Midfield maestro Anirudh Thapa deserves his share of credit for putting on an impressive performance in the first two games against Thailand and UAE. Thapa – who turns 21 today – was key in controlling the midfield and creating quality chances, for the forwards to miss. Playing Rowllin Borges over the youngster in the crucial tie against Bahrain was a massive blunder and it showed.
That youngsters are given a chance and that they are doing well is evidence to the fact that the progress – although slow – is in the right direction for Indian football.
Overall, the campaign was bittersweet for India. A lot of positives can be churned, but this tournament will always be about the what-ifs.