Uzbekistan, Saudi Arabia, China and North Korea make up Group B of the Asian Cup with a likely showdown against Australia or South Korea awaiting the top two in the next round.
Mirjalol Qosimov’s Uzbekistan are viewed as dark horses for the competition, priced as low as 14/1 with some bookies while Saudi Arabia have reached the last-four on six of the last eight occasions, winning the competition three times.
China, meanwhile, were runners-up in 2004 but have been eliminated in the group stage of the competition in 2007 and 2011. North Korea were knocked out of the competition 2011 in the group stage without scoring a goal, it was their first appearance in the finals since 1992.
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Uzbekistan have only been playing international football since 1992, following the split from the Soviet United and although they have failed to qualify for the World Cup yet they have appeared at the last six Asian Cups.
In 2011, The Uzbeks reached the semi-finals of the competition in Qatar, finishing top of a group which included Qatar, China and Kuwait. They then advanced to the last four with a 2-1 win over Jordan in the quarter-finals. That’s where the dream ended, however, and in emphatic style as Australia eased to a 6-0 win to reach their first final while Uzbekistan when on to lose 3-2 to South Korea in the 3rd-4th placed play-off.
The White Wolves, as they are nicknamed, do not have a selection of familiar names but they do have a group of highly experienced internationals. Their friendly with New Zealand in September did highlight a lack of experience up front but they did enjoy a comfortable 3-1 victory.
Dubbed the ‘Croatia of Asia’, Qosimov’s men should get through the group with relative ease but it hard to see them advancing beyond the quarter-finals if, as expected, South Korea and Australia qualify from Group A.
Saudi Arabia will also be confident of advancing despite losing all three matches in Qatar in 2011, conceding eight goals and scoring just one. The entire Saudi squad all play their football in their home country with former Real Madrid coach Juan Ramon Lopez Caro in charge.
The Green Falcon’s lost 3-2 to 2015 Asian Cup hosts Australia this September at Fulham’s Craven Cottage. The Saudi’s qualified for four successive World Cup’s between 1994 and 2006 but have failed to reach the last two finals. They also reached the final of the 2007 Asian Cup, losing 1-0 to Iraq.
Caro’s side face China in their first game of the competition, meanwhile, it could prove to be a decisive tie. The Chinese will be appearing in their 11th consecutive Asian Cup and will hoping to advance from the group stage for the first time since 2004. Former Portsmouth boss Alain Perrin is in charge of the nation, who have appeared at just one World Cup, in 2002, losing all three matches.
China did not have an easy road to Australia, with Jose Antonio Camacho sacked following an embarrassing 5-1 loss against lowly Thailand, a side 147th in the FIFA rankings at the time.
Perrin replaced the Spaniard and guided the side to the finals but could not prevent the Chinese recording their worst ever qualifying record with only goal difference seeing them advance to the finals at the expense of Lebanon as the ‘best ranked third-placed side’ in qualifying.
There is some reason for Perrin to be confident, however, as the Chinese picked up draws against Japan and South Korea and defeated Australia at the 2013 East Asian Cup.
North Korea complete the group and head into the competition as the lowest rank side in the tournament, sitting 146th in the Fifa world rankings in September. The North Korean’s will be making their 4th appearance at the Asian Cup finals have reached the competition in 1980, where they reached the semi-finals, 1992 and 2011. The team struggled in Qatar in 2011, however, losing two and drawing one, conceding two goals and failing to score in their three matches.
Yun Jong-Su is in his second-spell as manager, meanwhile, having taken charge of the country between 2004-05 before returning in 2011 and secured his sides participation in Australia with victory in the 2012 AFC Challenge Cup. The Korean’s defeated minnows Turkmenistan 2-1 in the final after a 2-0 win over Palestine in the semi-finals.
That victory will not count for much this winter, however, with the level of competition significantly higher and the North Koreans would do well to get a point from their three matches, let alone qualify from the group.