The Asian Cup group stages were completed on Tuesday and we can now look forward to the last eight of the continental showpiece in Australia.
While five of the first eight games at the African Cup of Nations have ended 1-1, there were no draws Down Under, an unprecedented sequence of 24 games without a stalemate. This tournament has exceeded so many expectations.
The visiting nations have been warmly received by the public with crowds averaging over 16,000 on hand to enjoy the three week festival.
Highlights include Jaka Hbaisha’s historic first Asian Cup goal for Palestine, some brilliant performances by Emerati maestro Omar Abdulrahman, the North Korean fans adopting ‘Ole Ole Ole’ as an ode to Kim Jong-Un and a story about a ball boy.
The only negative that comes to mind is with a total of six four goal hauls or better, and two dead rubbers on the final match day involving Oman, Kuwait, Bahrain and World Cup 2022 hosts Qatar, the decision to expand the competition from 2019 now looks questionable.
The three favourites, Australia, South Korea and Japan all progressed to the quarter-finals with relative ease.
This Australian team have been too reliant on Tim Cahill but all eight of their goals thus far have arrived from different players, including the 35-year old New York Red Bulls forward in the curtain raiser against Kuwait.
The Socceroos narrowly lost to South Korea at the weekend, their first defeat on home soil in almost six years, but the return of captain Mile Jedinak is a welcome boost.
They play football’s sleeping giant China on Thursday, immediately following the tie between the South Koreans and Asia’s nearly men, Uzbekistan, who have qualified for the knockout rounds for the fourth straight time.
Iraq and UAE were the only Arab nations to survive. Iraq are set to face arch-rivals Iran in Canberra and Carlos Queiroz’s side will be hard to beat.
Two contenders for goal of the tournament came from the boot of Iran players, with Ehsan Hajsafi’s strike against Bahrain and a Bergkamp-esque goal by Sardar Azmoun at the expense of Qatar – although it was another Dutchman, Ruud van Nisterlooy, his coach drew comparisons with.
A large proportion of Iranian fans are women, who are banned from attending men’s sports events back home.
The UAE squad, like China, is comprised solely of home based players, and must prepare for a meeting with defending champions Japan. The Samurai Blue confirmed their place in the quarter-finals with a 2-0 win over Jordan in Melbourne.
The Jordanians have won just once in 10 games under Ray Wilkins since his appointment in September along with assistant Frank Stapleton.
“I will speak to Prince Ali when I get back to Jordan. Unfortunately my record is not that good – it is pretty poor. I don’t know if I will go down as the worst coach in Jordan’s history,” said Wilkins, who wishes to continue in the role.
Bob Houghton with India (2011) and Peter Withe for Thailand (2000) are the other British managers to bring a team to the Asian Cup and both failed to record a victory.
There were early exits too for North Korea and three-time winners Saudi Arabia, who at least kept the same coach for the full duration of the group phase, having replaced Milan Máčala and fired José Peseiro after just one match of the 2000 and 2011 Asian Cups respectively.
Debutants Palestine lost each of their games but the national team can leave Australia with their heads held high.
Thursday, January 22
South Korea v Uzbekistan (Melbourne)
South Korea topped Group A with three 1-0 wins. The Reds haven’t ruled the continental roost since 1960 and Uli Stielike’s men are determined to end that drought after a dreadful showing in Brazil last summer.
Uzbekistan have played in every Asian Cup since independence (reaching the semis in 2011) but the ‘White Wolves’ are still chasing their first World Cup finals appearance.
Australia v China (Brisbane)
Australia are looking to become the first hosts to win the Asian Cup since Japan in 1992. Alain Perrin has China playing with confidence by stretching their unbeaten run to 11 games.
Stephen White, a 12-year-old Australian ball boy, was hailed as China’s lucky charm after their win over Saudi Arabia. Stephen helped Chinese goalkeeper Wang Dalei save a penalty by telling him which way to dive.
Friday January 23
Iran v Iraq (Canberra)
Iran are Asia’s highest ranked side but The Whites have not lifted the trophy since 1976. Iran and Iraq have played each other 24 times, with Iran winning 14 times, Iraq taking four victories and six matches ending in a draw. Iraq won the title in 2007.
The last seven Asian Cup winning managers were foreigners, including three Brazilians and coaches from Italy, France, Portugal and Holland.
Japan v UAE (Sydney)
Yasuhito Endo made his 150th appearance for Japan against Iraq, drawing level with German World Cup-winner Lothar Matthaus. AC Milan star Keisuke Honda has found the net in all three games played.
UAE have made it out of the group for the first time since 1996. In the 2-1 win over Bahrain, Ali Mabkhout scored after just 14 seconds to record the fastest ever goal in the history of the Asian Cup.