Group B: Uzbekistan, Saudi Arabia, Korea DPR and China
Group B is the weakest of the four groups in the Asian Cup but also the most intriguing. There isn’t a standout candidate to progress to the knock out stage with all four countries showing cause for qualification. All six games will be vital to the makeup of the group.
There will be plenty of interest in this group with the Socceroos facing one of these teams in the quarter finals, providing they progress from Group A.
Uzbekistan enters the tournament with the best FIFA ranking in the group (74) but is capable of anything on their day. They have a strong domestic league but it’s been a case of ‘close but not close enough’ in recent times. Fourth at the 2011 Asian Cup, the White Wolves have the quality to challenge the bigger nations but mental fragility could be their biggest opponent. A dangerous outfit if they are on top of their game.
How they got here: Runners up in Group E. Two comfortable wins against Vietnam got their campaign back on track after starting with a 0-0 draw at home to Hong Kong.
Key match: The first game against Korea DPR could set the tone for the tournament for the talented Uzbeks. On paper the team should have no problem in this game, or with the remainder of the group but football isn’t played on paper. Two time Asian footballer of the year, Server Djeparov, will be looked to as the most important playing in the team and will want to improve on his 23 goals at national level. If Uzbekistan can find their confidence early against Korea DPR anything is possible for the remainder of the Cup.
Predicted group finish: First
Saudi Arabia is a giant of Asian football, winning the tournament three times. Recent efforts haven’t been kind to the Saudi’s with a group stage exit in 2011 and failing to qualify for the last two World Cups. A positive Gulf Cup performance, where they finished second, could be the kick start Saudi Arabian football needs. Controversial AFC Player of the Year, Nasser Al-Shamrani , will receive an interesting reception wherever he travels around Australia.
How they got here: Winners of Group C. Saudi Arabia went through the group stage undefeated and qualification was never in doubt at any stage.
Key match: Saudi Arabia travel to Melbourne in their second game to play an unpredictable Korea DPR. The Green Falcons will be hoping for a positive showing in their first game so they can play positive football against the North Koreans. Saudi Arabia will be hoping they are on the brink of qualification before they face group favourites Uzbekistan in their final game.
Predicted group finish: Second
Early qualification is almost a disadvantage for Korea DPR. Winners of the 2012 AFC Challenge Cup the team only played one game between September 6 2013 and October 31 this year. Match preparation has stepped up of late, but expect Korea DPR to offer little challenge to the other three teams in the group. The last team to arrive in Australia, they play a friendly in India just five days before their opening match against Uzbekistan.
How they got here: Winners of the 2012 AFC Challenge Cup. Korea DPR went through the tournament undefeated but needed an 87th minute penalty to get past Turkmenistan.
Key match: China represent the best opportunity for Korea DPR’s first Asian Cup win since 1980 but their campaign could be over if they lose their first two games. The second game against Saudi Arabia is the most important game for their campaign, as they need to get a result from this to build momentum and set-up a possible showdown with China to see who progresses to the knock out stage.
Predicted group finish: Fourth
Just because you’re the biggest country in the world doesn’t mean you’re the best, just ask China. Perennial failures on the football pitch over the last decade, the Dragons have been disappointing, especially after World Cup qualification in 2002 and finishing second in the 2004 Asian Cup which they hosted. China will see 2015 as an opportunity to progress passed the group stage and erase some football ghosts of recent outings.
How they got here: China narrowly finished in front of Lebanon as the best third placed team in the qualification stages. China were handed a tough group with 2007 winners Iraq and regional heavyweights Saudi Arabia.
Key match: China face Saudi Arabia in their opening game that could decide who progresses to the quarter final stage. China traditionally start tournaments well, winning their last two opening matches before fading. Head to head and FIFA rankings cannot separate the two nations but the Chinese team could finally reach the next phase with a solid start against Saudi Arabia.
Predicted group finish: Third