Asian Cup Group B Preview: Uzbeks favourites, China and Saudis do battle
With three of the four nations having reached the semi-finals or better in the past three Asian Cups, Group B is set to be a competitive one - with North Korea the notable minnows. Saudi Arabia are the only proven side with three Asian championships to their name, while China are two-time semi-finalists and Uzbekistan were in the last four in 2011.
The favourites - Uzbekistan, Saudi Arabia
Ranked 74th in the FIFA standings, the Uzbeks are the out-and-out favourites to win the group. The fourth highest-ranked nation in Asia, Uzbekistan - led by coach Mirjalol Qosimov - have shown gradual improvement in the continental tournament over the years to suggest they could be ready to peak in 2015. Group-stage exits in 1996 and 2000 were followed by last-eight appearances in 2004 and 2007. However, their best effort yet came in Qatar in 2011 when they reached the semi-finals, only to be outclassed by Australia 6-0. They have been match hardened by four December friendlies, only losing one of those - 1-0 to Iraq. Uzbekistan also have the benefit of experienced pair Timur Kapadze and captain Server Djeparov serving them in midfield - they have 220 international caps between them, and are embarking on their fourth Asian Cup campaigns respectively.
The Saudis, meanwhile, are their greatest threat to finish top of the group, although they are ranked below China. Cosmin Olaroiu's side are coming off a strong Gulf Cup campaign - in which they lost the final to Qatar 2-1. Historically strong in the event, Saudi Arabia will want to put paid to their recent record - in which they have bowed out at the group stage in two of the past three events either side of a runner-up finish in 2007. The three-time winners have not reigned in Asia since 1996.
The outsiders - China, North Korea
The Chinese enter the New Year on a nine-match unbeaten run, and will take plenty of confidence into the Asian Cup under French boss Alain Perrin. The 97th-ranked outfit have not surpassed the group stages at the continental tournament since finishing runner-up as hosts in 2004, with records of one win, one loss and one draw in both the '07 and '11 tournaments. Going against the Chinese is their lack of competitive action - their last tournament was the East Asian Cup in July 2013.
The North Koreans, the 25th-best side in Asia, deserve their group minnow status. However, Yung Jon-su's men have strung together some promising form pre-tournament, going unbeaten in their East Asian Cup qualifiers in November to book their spot in the August 2015 showpiece.
Star Player - Nasser Al-Shamrani
The Saudi Arabia striker is a well-known name for good and bad reasons. In his homeland, he is simply a hero - with 11 goals at international level. The 31-year-old was named Asian Footballer of the Year in 2014 - the first Saudi and Al Hilal player to earn the honour since Yasser Al-Qahtani in 2007. He was a part of Al Hilal's losing side in the AFC Champions League final, and that is where the bad news begins of late. Following the loss, Al-Shamrani spat in the direction of Western Sydney Wanderers' Matthew Spiranovic, sparking a melee. And arriving on Australian soil for the Asian Cup, he was involved in an altercation with a fan in Geelong prior to their 4-1 friendly loss to Bahrain on Tuesday. All eyes will be on him, for one reason or another.
Crunch match - Saudi Arabia v China
The two nations are divided by just five spots in the FIFA rankings, but it is the Saudis who will take the edge into their tournament opener. Olaroiu's men have not lost to the Chinese in three meetings since 2009, winning two of them - the most recent outing being a 0-0 draw in Xi'an in November 2013. With Uzbekistan set to be a strong contender for a top two spot in the group, a lot could ride on this first-up clash.
10 January 2015 - Uzbekistan v North Korea (Match 3), Sydney
Saudi Arabia v China (Match 4), Brisbane
14 January 2015 - North Korea v Saudi Arabia (Match 11), Melbourne
China v Uzbekistan (Match 12), Brisbane
18 January 2015 - Uzbekistan v Saudi Arabia (Match 19), Melbourne
China v North Korea (Match 20), Canberra