AFC Asian Cup – the last eight

From the humble beginnings of four teams in 1956, the AFC Asian Cup tournament has expanded from 16 nations in its last edition in 2015 to 24 for the first time in the current event taking in place in United Arab Emirates.

Kyrgyzstan, Philippines and Yemen proved to be worthy debutants in the group stages but now it’s down to the nitty-gritty as the remaining teams have been decided for the quarter finals.

 So can Australia defend their crown or who will succeed them as the 17th winners of the world’s second oldest continental football championship?

From holders Australia in the east to hosts United Arab Emirates in the west, here’s a look at the last eight….

Australia

The Socceroos are the reigning champions after beating Korea Republic in the final in Sydney in 2015.

Coach Graham Arnold is back in charge for a second stint after reaching the quarter-finals in 2007.

He returned to replace Bert Van Marwijk after a disappointing World Cup.

Australia were dealt a heavy pre-tournament blow with the loss of key midfielder Aaron Mooy through injury, then a major setback as they lost their opening group game against Jordan in Al Ain.

The Aussies recovered with three goals in each game in their wins against Palestine and Syria but another scare followed in the Round of 16 as they squeezed past Uzbekistan on penalties.

They’ll be hoping to rise to the occasion though in their quarter-final as, due to the time difference, it will already be in the early hours of Australia Day back home when they kick-off against hosts UAE in Abu Dhabi.

China PR

Despite the meteoric rise of the domestic game in China, the national team travelled with diminished expectations following uninspiring home draws against India and Palestine.

The expensive appointment of coach Marcello Lippi in 2016 failed to deliver a place at the World Cup in Russia but improvements have undoubtedly been seen under the tutelage of the hugely respected Italian.

Anticipated wins against debutants Kyrgyzstan and Philippines ensured Team Dragon’s progression beyond the group stage before Xiao Zhi came off the bench to inspire a second-half comeback against Thailand in the Round of 16.

Nonetheless, an improvement of their runners-up finish in 1984 and 2004 would be a major surprise.

Iran

Vying with Japan as the tournament favourites, Iran should be considered as the team to beat.

With an experienced squad that plays club football throughout Asia and Europe, they have been notably well-organised under the lengthy reign of coach Carlos Queiroz.

The Portuguese former Manchester United assistant manager has led Team Melli for the last eight years. They have reached the last two World Cups, receiving considerable praise for their performances in Russia last year.

 Their defensive credentials have been ably demonstrated in the UAE as, along with Qatar, they are one of only two teams who progressed to the quarter-finals with four clean sheets.

A 5-0 win in their opening game against Yemen may suggest that they also have the attacking prowess to add to the three Asian Cup titles they secured in 1968, 1972 and 1976.

Korea Republic

Having overcome the late arrival of talisman Son Heung-min, Korea Republic are aiming to claim their first Asian Cup title since 1960.

The Taeguek Warriors actually won the first two tournaments so their long wait for a third is particularly surprising as they have qualified for all the World Cup tournaments since 1986.

Their emphasis was on restricting their opponents during last year’s World Cup in Russia, but since the arrival of new Portuguese coach Paulo Bento in August, they have tried to become more attack-minded.

The Reds remained unbeaten in seven friendlies against strong opposition in the run-up to this tournament and, along with Japan and Qatar, remain as one of three teams with a 100% record in UAE 2019.

They have scored only six goals in their four games though and the loss of captain Ki Sung-yueng through injury could prove to be significant.

Japan

The four-time winners of the Asian Cup have won the tournament more often than any other nation.

 In contrast with their pedigree from the past, Japan arrived in the United Arab Emirates with a largely youthful squad that has one eye fixed on the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.

Familiar names such as Keisuke Honda, Shinji Kagawa and Shinji Okazaki are not involved while new coach Hajime Moriyasu, who was assistant to Akira Nishino in last year’s World Cup, is attempting to promote a more possession-based game.

Although the Blue Samurai have yet to attain the attacking fluency that they would prefer, they have won their first four games and must be considered as strong contenders to lift their first Asian Cup title since 2011.

Qatar

The 2022 World Cup hosts have arguably been the most impressive team in the tournament so far, winning all four games without conceding a goal.

Qatar have already equalled their best achievements in the Asian Cup after also reaching the quarter-finals in 2000 and 2011.

Star of the show so far is Al Moez Ali who is the tournament’s leading scorer with seven goals, including a hat-trick in the 6-0 win against Korea DPR.

Inevitably, controversy seems to follow the Qataris though.

Rumours have surfaced regarding the eligibility of several players, including Sudan-born Ali and Bassam Al Rawi (from Iraq) who were born outside of the country and the possible failure to meet FIFA residency requirements. Qualification through family links has also been questioned.

Former Barcelona youth coach Félix Sánchez will be hoping such rumours prove to be groundless and he can continue to prepare this team for the last eight and beyond.

United Arab Emirates

A lack of goals and injury to key player Omar Abdulrahman meant that the hosts entered their tournament with lessened expectations.

Hopes of reaching the final, in a repeat of 1996 in the only Asian Cup they previously hosted, where subdued after only nine goals were scored in the 16 pre-tournament games under vastly experienced Italian coach Alberto Zaccheroni.

After winning only one of their three group games and only prevailing after extra time in their Round of 16 tie against debutants Kyrgyzstan, the UAE are struggling to repeat their third-place finish in 2015.

The current squad has been labelled the Golden Generation but many observers feel that immediate improvements are required if a golden opportunity is allowed to go to waste.

Performances so far have increased the pressure on Zaccheroni, who has been heavily criticised throughout his 15-month reign for what many perceive to be an excessively defensive approach.

Vietnam

A month ago, Vietnam won the 2018 AFF Championship to be crowned as South-east Asia’s best. However, they are the rank outsiders as the Asian Cup reaches its closing stages.

Undoubtedly, the Golden Stars are the rising stars of Asia. Their creative approach is inspired by coach Park Hang-seo, who has become known as the Korean Hiddink.

A quarter-final appearance equals their best Asian Cup performance in 2007. Indeed, this is only the third time they have qualified for the tournament since 1960.

Not too long ago, Vietnamese football was in a sorry state, damaged by corruption and financial mismanagement.

Much of impressive improvement has been achieved behind the scenes at academies in the country.

Although silverware will be elusive in the UAE, it’s hoped Vietnam’s progress will prove to be a fine example to be repeated by their South-east Asian rivals.

AFC Asian Cup – the last eight

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