Friday, July 06, 2007
The New Rivals
During last year's World Cup, I wrote a piece for Shane Davis's Australian Football Review site entitled "The New Rivals", an attempt to analyse the strengths and weaknesses of the Asian sides I'd been able to watch at the tournament. Sadly, it appears to have been mysteriously spammed out of existence.
A brief summary, then. Korea were undoubtedly the best of the bunch in Germany (not counting Australia, that is), and not just on the pitch. They were quick, combative and organised, and had a player of genuine class in Park Ji-Sung. The Japanese looked unintegrated and ill-prepared, the Saudis were their usual blend of raw talent and defensive ineptitude, while Iran suffered from having their key player - Ali Karimi - short of match practice and out of form.
My outlook for the current tournament does not, for reasons of personnel more than anything else, square entirely with the above assessment. Korea are not only without the irreplaceable Park, but have also lost the services of Tottenham's Lee Young-Pyo and the experienced striker Seol Ki-Hyeon due to injury.
Although the Taeguk Warriors should progress through their group with little trouble, either China or Iran would prove a tough assignment for them in the quarter-finals, I feel, given that they will be without three key campaigners.
Many of my footballing friends - including the aformenetioned Shane Davis, who always has his finger on the pulse - have picked Iran as their tip for this tournament, and not without cause. They boast a number of players with European experience, including the midfield duo of Andranik Teymourian and Javad Nekounam, both of whom made the switch to Europe after last year's World Cup. Ali Karimi is there again, but he has had another lean season with Bayern Munich (and has recently jumped ship to a Qatari club), so some of the same rustiness we observed at the World Cup may be visible.
Japan, the defending champions, have a settled side, a player of world class in Shunsuke Nakamura (although he is currently recovering from injury), and a canny, experienced coach in Ivica Osim. They probably deserve to go into the tournament as favourites, but there are some question marks over the squad. The midfield, Nakamura apart, looks a little short of experience; Takashi Fukunishi and the much-travelled Junichi Inamoto have not been retained from the 2006 World Cup squad. I feel the Japanese might just miss Inamoto's nous and fighting spirit.
The other Asian heavyweight, Saudi Arabia, is not to be underestimated, but their preparation for the tournament has not been encouraging; in their last two warm-up matches, they have failed to beat Oman and North Korea (the latter being reduced to ten men in the second half), while their star striker Yasser Al-Qahtani is returning from injury and has had little match practice of late.
China could be an interesting outsider. Although they have, surprisingly, omitted their experienced striker Li Jinyu, who gave glimpses of his undoubted quality in the Asian Champions' League (not least against Adelaide United), they can call on several players with European experience, including Sun Jihai, Li Tie and Zheng Zhi, now back with Li Jinyu at Shandong after his loan spell at Charlton.
Where does all this leave Australia? Pound for pound, Graham Arnold's team should be the favourites, but, of course, Asia is terra incognita for so many of the Australian players. Reaching the semi-finals would be a solid achievement, anything more than that would be a pleasant bonus, anything less a relative failure.
We still have an obvious weakness at left-back, we seem not to have quite worked out what's going on up front, and Mark Bresciano's injury troubles are an unwelcome distraction in the lead-up to the opening game. The lack of serious match practice before the tournament is also a concern, but in other respects the team appears to have been preparing solidly.
Mike Cockerill, the man on the spot, has run his ruler over the main contenders as well, and his observations are well worth a read.
It will be a fascinating event.
As for the Iran tip, it's really nothing more than a feeling! :p But thinking about it further and reading this piece of yours and Cockerill's, I'm more confident now.
Blimey, I though this blog got its fair share of spam attacks...until I saw that page on AFR!
I think there will be an Aus-Iran semi and whoever wins that, wins the tourney.
I think we'll meet Iran in the semis too, but I've got a hunch that that game will be so tight and sapping that whoever wins it will be short of energy for the final. And if Japan make it to the final, they probably have a side good enough to take advantage.
I posted my tips for the tournament on TWG earlier today. So far I think I'm the only one who doesn't think we will make the final...I'd be delighted to be proven wrong!