Asian Cup: Five things we learned from Group A

After an initial stutter, Australia kicked off their Asian Cup campaign in emphatic style, downing Kuwait 4-1 in Melbourne on Friday night. Meanwhile on a wet and windy Saturday in Canberra, South Korea walked away with all three points after edging Oman 1-0 to sit second on the table behind the Socceroos on goal difference. The score lines were only part of the story. Shaun Moran takes us through five things we learned from Group A.

1. Massimo Luongo justified his selection

Australia’s man of the match earned his stripes following a mature and striking performance that saw him provide the assist for the Socceroos’ first goal before leaping high to nod home himself.

Doubts over his inclusion were almost vindicated 15 minutes in as the Australians struggled to infiltrate the Kuwaiti rear-guard. It wasn’t long though, before the misgivings were quashed as the Swindon Town midfielder repaid the faith shown in him by coach Ange Postecoglou.

His endless running, tracking back and forward incursions were there to see, while his sound distribution and eager tackling virtually ensured that he will get the nod once more in the Group stage.

2. Kuwait’s fragility was laid bare

Nabil Maaloul’s counter-attacking approach seemed to be paying dividends for the visitors, who after going ahead looked to create some lengthy delays with players feigning injuries and time- wasting.

This failed to unsettle the Australians. Instead their fight back brought about a Kuwaiti capitulation, highlighting the sort of ill-discipline and unpredictable nature that saw the team trounced at November’s Gulf Cup of Nations.

Oman, also in Group A, was one of the teams at that tournament to take advantage of these shortcomings and they will need to redress them quickly in advance of another sturdy test against the Korea Republic on Tuesday.

3. Australia’s defensive vulnerabilities brought to the fore

The early concession that threatened to derail Australia’s campaign exposed the side’s susceptibilities, particularly from set pieces.

It was the same manner in which the Socceroos allowed Japan back into their most recent friendly and is particularly disconcerting considering the height and physical advantage Australia retains in that area of the park.

The Australian defence almost gave Kuwait a lifeline when the score was at 3-1, which was at a time where they should have been in complete command. Fortunately for the Roos, Al-Azraq struck the bar, prior to goalkeeper Mat Ryan stepping up to foil another foray.

They cannot afford such indiscretions against stronger teams going forward who will not be as forgiving.

4. Korea Republic show flexibility

Uli Stielike’s reign has seen a shift in the Korean modus operandi since his predecessor Hong Myung-Bo departed the post. While the change was noticeable for long patches, there were still elements of the style employed at last year’s World Cup.

The direct long ball was sporadically used, which was puzzling particularly when lining up against a well-built Oman outfit.

It did divert to a more cultured form of keeping the ball on the turf and using the width well to stretch the Omanis. This proved more constructive and it is likely we will see a similar approach against Kuwait.

5. Ali Al-Habsi ageing like a fine wine

Oman’s veteran shot-stopper is showing no signs of decline after singlehandedly keeping the Red Warriors in the game on countless occasions.

Paul Le Guen’s professed desire to leave Canberra with nothing less than a point made for a defensive approach from the Gulf country. Notwithstanding his men’s attempts, they failed to adequately shield their custodian from a barrage of Korean attacks.

Questions could be raised about whether he could have done better with his initial save that ultimately resulted in the game-deciding goal. Yet it would be harsh on the 33-year-old who looks as if he will be seeing plenty of the ball in the matches to come.