We’re less than a week into 2019 and, already, history beckons for three footballing nations.
Oliver McManus guides us through the debut nations at the 17th edition of the AFC Asian Cup – all you need to know to impress your friends at the next pub quiz.
We’ll kick off with Kyrgyzstan who slot into Group C. The nation, a mere 26 years old, looking to continue where they left off in qualification.
Emerging as a result of the USSR’s collapse, Kyrgyzstan heralds a population of just over six million people and have really had a change in fortunes, in footballing terms, over the past decade.
The third round of qualification saw the squad begin proceedings with a ranking of 124th but looking to bring through some fresh faces to their team.
Established players like Daniel Tagoe and Pavel Sidorenko were joined in the ranks by a host of younger footballers – Mustafa Jusupov and Avazbek Otkeev, two defenders of particular note.
High scoring in the majority of games, The White Falcons struck 14 times over the course of their six group games but proved to be frail at the back – costing them dearly against Myanmar and causing scares in several of their other games.
Anton Zemilanukhin is their talisman up front but the team are overly reliant on the striker who, at 30, has had eight clubs in the last five years and failed to find form at any of them.
The man at the helm is Aleksandr Krestinin and the Eastern European team are rediscovering the form they found in the, brief, managerial tenure of Sergey Dvoryankov. Seems like the Russian’s bring out the best in them but Krestinin is, by far and away, the best manager to grace the Kyrgyzstan national team.
Throughout qualification the 40-year-old opted to play an attacking 4-3-3 formation but, more traditionally, has been known to shore up the back line with a 4-2-3-1 – it will be interesting to see the approach taken in the group stages but, you suspect, the Falcons will have the best chance of taking points when they look to exploit on the counter attack.
Group C, then, sees them face, fellow debutants, the Philippines, China PR and South Korea in a group that, really, could see anything happen.
Talking of the Philippines, they are our next team on this trilogy of first-timers but, probably, the most established within Asian football.
For a long time now there have been Filipino footballers plying their trade in the Premier League – the Younghusbands at Chelsea just over a decade ago and now with Neil Etheridge the stalwart goalie at Cardiff City.
It’s hard to believe that 2019 is their first ever appearance in the AFC Asian Cup and they were led to the finals by American coach Thomas Dooley who took to the helm in 2014.
His leadership was crucial as they campaigned impressively throughout qualification but the decision by the Philippines Football Federation not to renew his contract, after reaching the UAE, proved historically bizarre.
In an odd spot of poetic justice, the PFF have since been through turmoil in trying to appoint a new coach – three coaches arrived and, swiftly, departed within the space of four months before they settled on Sven Goran Eriksson.
Qualifying with an unbeaten record, the Azkals were guilty of being held to a draw too often throughout the third round group stage – three out of their six games resulted in an even score.
In games such as the one against Tajikistan (a 4-3 win) they seemed to be lacking in focus and allowed their counterparts, without reason, to grab a foothold in the game.
A lack of killer instinct from the squad was evident but once they did find their stride then they were able to push on nicely.
Still strongly influenced by the goals Phil Younghusband – their all-time leading goalscorer – it is important for the nation to have someone of his experience to lead the team on.
Defensively they have named only four recognizable defenders in their 23 man squad though, obviously, there are defensive-minded midfielders to plug that gap.
Likewise, it is a shame that Neil Etheridge has opted not to join up with his countrymen having played a strong role in qualification, leaving them short of a quality goalkeeper.
The approach that Eriksson takes, having managed seven games thus far, will be pretty much gung-ho.
He is, after all, at the helm on a temporary contract but the potential for success within the Philippines could be far more permanent.
Yemen are the final debutants at the competition – for this year, anyway – but, under the guise of South Yemen (now, confusingly North Yemen) competed back in 1976. Officially, though, this is their first such representation.
Established in 1990, in the wake of Yemen’s unification, the newfound nation actually had quite a few reasons to be positive in the initial stages of their history.
After all this was not a footballing team that had just sprung out of nowhere, these were the combined forces of a strong Asian nation.
Disappointment cropped up at almost every turn until it came to their latest qualification attempt; having cruised past the Maldives in the play off round, Yemen found themselves in a group against the Philippines, Tajikistan and Nepal.
The third ranked nation in that pool, the pressure was off for The Red Devils.
Ethiopian head coach Abraham Mebratu set up the squad with a strong defensive mindset and whilst some of their games might not have been the most thrilling to watch – 0-0 draw against Nepal, I’m talking about you – they managed to grind out the results.
Twowins and four draws saw them qualify by way of second place in their group.
Now they’re in the United Arab Emirates, then, they will take their slot in Group D against Iran, Iraq and Vietnam and they’ll be confident in their ability to scupper the chances of the more favoured nations.
Fresh into the job is, well-travelled manager, Jan Kocian and the squad he’s named for this tournament is interesting to read.
The 23 man team is experienced which is only a positive but the goals they’ve scored are where the nation begin to come unstuck. 24 goals between them and not a single striker to have bagged more than three, in international games.
It’ll be a tough ask for these men and, certainly, out of the three debut nations they are the weakest link.
Will Kyrgyzstan soar like a falcon? Will the Philippines be all bark and no bite? Will Yemen prove to be a thorny team? Only time will tell.