Reigning champions Japan join Jordan, Iraq and Palestine in the fourth and final group at this winters Asian Cup.
The four-time champions will be confident of getting through to the semi-finals, at least, with a quarter-final tie against the runners-up from Group C awaiting, if they can top their group as expected.
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Jordan have recently appointed former Chelsea and Manchester United midfielder Ray Wilkins as they new manager, while, Iraq were surprise winners of the competition in 2007. Palestine, meanwhile, qualified for the competition with 1-0 over the Philippines in the final of AFC Challenge Cup.
The Japanese should have no problems working their way through the group, however, despite a poor performance at the World Cup over the summer. The Samurai Blue failed to get out of the group stage, drawing with Greece and losing to Colombia and the Ivory Coast. Javier Aguirre replaced Alberto Zaccheroni following the disappointment in Brazil and lost 2-0 to a Uruguayan side missing Luis Suarez in his first friendly.
The former Atletico Madrid boss has a wealth of talent as his disposal, however, in comparison to Japan’s three Group D rivals. Inter Milan’s Yuto Nagatomo and Southampton’s Maya Yoshida should both feature in defence while former Manchester United star Shinji Kagawa should dictate the play in midfield alongside AC Milan’s Keisuke Honda. Mainz 05 striker Shinji Okazaki has a great record upfront, meanwhile, averaging just under a goal every other game for his country.
Former Chelsea assistant manager Wilkins will take Jordan into the finals looking to improve on their last-eight finish in 2011. The Jordaens are ranked inside the top 60 in the world, and 5th in the Asian Football Confederation rankings. They also reached the final round of qualifications of the 2014 World Cup under Adnan Hamad. The Asian’s faced Uruguay for a spot in Brazil, however, and were no match losing the first-leg 5-0, the second-leg finishing a respectable 0-0.
Jordan were unbeaten throughout qualifying, finishing second behind Paul Le Guen’s Oman in Group A, with three wins and three draws, scoring an impressive 10 goals and conceding just three and Wilkins will be taking a side full of experienced internationals to Australia.
Wilkins will fancy his side’s chances of escaping the group, although a quarter-final tie against Iran appears likely. Iraq, meanwhile, qualified for the finals after finishing second in Group C behind Saudi Arabia. The Lions of Mesopotamia were shock winners of the competition in 2007, finishing above Australia in their group before defeating Vietnam, South Korea and Saudi Arabia in the knock-out stages. And the Iraqis were unfortunate four-years-ago, finishing second in their group behind Iran before losing 1-0 to Australia, after-extra-time, in the quarter-finals.
AFC Challenge Cup winners Palestine, meanwhile, will be making their first appearance in the finals of the competition and their attack will be spearheaded by striker Imad Khalili. The striker netted 15 goals in Sweden’s top division last season before moving to Chinese side Shanghai SIPG this summer.
The Palestinians preparations for competition were hampered, however, following the resignation of coach Jamal Mahmoud in September. The 41-year-old Jordanian had been in charge of the country since 2011 and guided his team to the 2012 West Asian Football Federation Championship and 2014 AFC Challenge Cup. Their qualification has been dubbed a ‘cinderella’ story by some sections of the media with the squad viewed as national heroes in Palestine.
This competition may prove to be a step too far for the nation, however, especially with the loss of influential coach Mahmoud. Japan should qualify with ease with Iraq and Jordan likely to battle it out for the runners-up spot.
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