Asia Awaits Its New Champions As The Asian Cup Draws To A Close

After 28 games over a period of three weeks, the final of the Asian Cup takes place tomorrow with South Korea taking on host nation Australia. Whilst not considered as one of the pinnacle International tournaments, this year’s event has showcased the talent that can be found in this region and just how far the game has progressed. Competitiveness in the region has improved dramatically over the past decade with more teams challenging for final spots in the tournament. Along with the regulars like Japan, South Korea, UAE and Australia come new pretenders like Qatar, Uzbekistan and debutantes this year, Palestine highlighting the rich diversity that this cup has.

Four years ago, Japan lifted the Cup after beating Australia in the final  Image from Getty)

Four years ago, Japan lifted the Cup after beating Australia in the final
Image from Getty)

It’s an incredible achievement for Palestine to reach the Asian Cup and one that has not gone unnoticed in the footballing community. Despite much publicized adverse conditions, the Palestine team qualified in style by winning the AFC Challenge Cup without conceding a single goal and drawing only one out of the five games. Whilst their experience in Australia was not quite what they had hoped for (three defeats, eleven goals conceded, only one goal scored) they exit the tournament with their heads held high. Similarly Uzbekistan’s remarkable resurgence continues as they put up an impressive show by finishing second in what was a difficult group Despite losing to group winners China, they secured good wins over North Korea and Saudi Arabia to progress to the quarter finals where they were eventually knocked out by South Korea.

It should be a great final between arguably two of the strongest teams in the region. The pair met in the group stages in a hotly contested battle with South Korea eventually coming out on top thanks to a goal from Jung Hyub Lee. Australia will be looking to make amends in the final in front of the home crowd at the packed ANZ stadium in Sydney.  There is extra incentive for the Aussies heading into the match given that they have never won the Asian Cup. Their best performance to date was four years ago in Qatar when they reached the final only to be beat by Japan in extra time. The memories of that day still live fresh in the mind of Australian legend Tim Cahill. The former Everton midfielder has been the heart and soul of the Australian team for over a decade and did announce his retirement from international football after last year’s World Cup, only to be persuaded to stay on for the Asian Cup. For Cahill, it was an opportunity to sign off in style – a win in the Asian Cup on home turf his final swan song. His contribution and influence to the team is unquestionable but along with it he brings goals. His three goals so far, including an impressive brace against China have propelled Australia to the final. Now one last performance is needed from their star man to rewrite history and finally put Australia’s name on the Asian Cup.

Standing in their way is two times champions South Korea. Despite having not won the trophy since 1960, South Korea have been there and thereabouts in almost every tournament since, three times finishing as runners up and four times as the third place team. After a dismal World Cup where they failed to show their true potential, picking up only one point from a possible nine in a 1-1 draw with Russia in the opening game. Changes at the top were made fairly quickly upon their return with manager Hong Myung-Bo being sacked and replaced by former West Germany midfielder turn sweeper Uli Stielike. Having spent the six years before coaching Qatar based sides Al Arabi and Al Sailiya; Stielike understood the significance of the Asian Cup and immediately started to put plans in place for an aggressive assault on the competition. He wasted little time in refreshing the squad he inherited adding Hoffenheim’s Jin Su Kim and Guangzhou’s Hyun-Soo Jang to a defense which was considered one of the worst in the World Cup. Stielike who was affectionately nicknamed “The Stopper” as a player has tightened up the defence and has encouraged the front line to close down more in order to play a high line game and relieve the pressure on the backline. So far the plan has worked with South Korea managing to get all the way to the final without conceding.  Upfront the addition of fairly unknown striker Lee Jeong-Hyeop has transformed the attack and given South Korea an edge in the matches they have played so far.

With the expectations on what South Korea should achieve at this tournament set low by the South Korean FA, Stielike and his side can look forward to the final with no pressure attached. It would be nice to complete the tournament without conceding a single goal as it would illustrate how far they have come since Brazil and in turn restore pride back into their bewildered fans but for the manager the only thing that is important is the victory. He knows that it will be a different Australia than the one they faced in the group stage and will be prepared for a hostile crowd. For the neutral it will be a match to remember with two of Asia’s best teams going at it with an intense ferocity for at least ninety minutes if not more. The victor will lift the trophy that night and earn their place in the record books whilst the loser will go back and ponder what could have been.

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World Cup Hangover Hands Hope To Europe’s Smaller Nations

Three games played and maximum points obtained for Northern Ireland and Iceland has placed them in a good position in their quest to end their respective hiatuses from international competitions. Having never qualified for the European Championships and possessing only limited exposure at World Cups (Northern Ireland have qualified three times – 1958, 1982 and 1986 whilst Iceland have never made it) both nations are desperate to qualify for France 2016. The startling improvements in both sides over recent years have given hope to their legions of fans who are praying that this is the time that they will make it. Having suffered heartbreak during the last World Cup qualifying campaign by narrowly missing out thanks to a playoff defeat by Croatia, Iceland have once again stepped up and are showcasing  the talents of what many are describing as a new golden generation. Convincing wins over Turkey and Latvia were swiftly followed by a shock 2-0 win over Holland on Monday past that has left Lars Lagerbeck’s side top of Group A, level on points with the Czech Republic. To suggest Holland were off the pace would be accurate with their World Cup heroic’s still heavy on their legs but credit must be given to Iceland who battled hard and created several good chances throughout the game and deserved the points. Whilst Holland licks their wounds under new coach Guus Hiddink, Iceland can prepare for their next game against the Czech’s safe in the knowledge that significant progress has been made in their bid to qualify for France.

Iceland continue to show improvements with a well fought 2-0 win over Holland (Image from Getty)

Iceland continue to show improvements with a well fought 2-0 win over Holland
(Image from Getty)

In Group F, Northern Ireland gave their chances a dramatic boost with three stunning wins over the Faroe Islands, Hungary and Greece putting them top of the pile. Norwich striker Kyle Lafferty has been in exceptional form scoring in all three games but it’s at the back that Northern Ireland have looked so impressive. Roy Carroll has rolled back the years with a series of fine performances in goal whilst Aaron Hughes and Gareth McAuley have marshaled the defense against some top opposition. In the last game against Greece in particular, the Northern Irish backline stifled attack after attack by the Greeks who like Holland have failed to spark under a new manager, Claudio Ranieri. The group is far from over for Northern Ireland with a long way still to go including tough matches against Finland, Romania and Greece to come but manager Michael O’Neill will take much optimism from the performances of his team in their opening few games which has left his side with a strong chance of qualification.

Lafferty sinks Greece (Image from Getty)

Lafferty sinks Greece
(Image from Getty)

The World Cup hangover appears to have affected several of Europe’s top nations including its current world champions. Having gone all the way in Brazil, Germany looked odds on favourites to top their group and progress to the European Championships in France for a shot at winning an historic double. But it would appear that the hangover from the party following their World Cup win has not yet subsided after three below par performances. One win, a draw and a shock defeat to Poland has Joachim Low’s team lying in third place in the group on four points with it all to do. After the retirement of the influential defensive pair of Philip Lahm and Per Mertesacker, Germany have looked less than convincing at the back. Manager Joachim Low has drafted in several potential solutions but none look as convincing as the exiting duo. Germany’s problems are not just limited to the back either with issues upfront as well. With Miroslav Klose finally calling time on his international career and an injury to Chelsea’s Andreas Schurrle, the World champions have struggled to convert the simplest of chances in their last three games. In total Germany created 35 chances in their opening group games against Scotland, Poland and Republic of Ireland converting only three of them. Borussia Monchengladbach striker Max Kruse has been identified as the successor to Klose’s crown but has yet to replicate his goal scoring club form on the international stage.

Kruse has yet to replicate his club form for Germany (Image from PA)

Kruse has yet to replicate his club form for Germany
(Image from PA)

Scotland’s chances of reaching their first international tournament in over 16 years stayed on track with a well fought 2-2 draw with Poland. After losing to Germany in game one and then beating Georgia at Ibrox on Saturday by a single goal, Gordon Strachan’s team travelled to Warsaw to face a buoyant Poland, who had surprised many with their 2-0 win over Germany. The game was ninety minutes full of end to end action with neither team willing to walk away with nothing. In the end a draw was a fair result and leaves both teams in contention for qualification. Next up for Strachan and Scotland is a home match against Martin O’Neill’s Republic of Ireland with both managers knowing that only three points will do in what is becoming an increasingly open group. Having held Germany to a 1-1 draw in their last match (thanks to a 94th minute equalizer by John O’Shea), the Republic travel to Glasgow next month with seven points from a possible nine. After collecting maximum points against Georgia and Gibraltar in the first two matches, the hard fought point against an arguably tougher foe in Germany will give the Republic of Ireland belief that they can beat Scotland in their own back yard. With all time leading goal scorer Robbie Keane back firing at all cylinders, the Scots will need to be cautious next month if they are to gain any points.

John O'Shea scores a last minute equalizer against Germany (Image from BPI/Kieran McManus)

John O’Shea scores a last minute equalizer against Germany
(Image from BPI/Kieran McManus)

Wales too are playing a cautious game after an impressive start to their qualifying campaign. Wins over Andorra and Cyprus plus a 0-0 draw with Bosnia has put Wales top of the group but with a series of difficult matches ahead against Belgium and Israel, Wales are taking nothing for granted. Led by the talents of Real Madrid’s Gareth Bale and Arsenal’s Aaron Ramsey, this youthful looking Welsh side hold strong belief that they can reach France 2016 and end the welsh fans misery. Having only ever reached one World Cup (1958) and one European Championship (1976), the welsh fans have been starved of competitive international tournaments for too long and are now looking towards manager Chris Coleman and his new batch of players to correct this problem. Hope is high in the welsh valleys but like the Republic of Ireland, Iceland, Northern Ireland and Scotland there is still a long way to go.

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England Hold Their Breath As The World Cup Draw Nears

Getting ready for the draw (Image from FIFA)With the World Cup draw happening tomorrow, nerves in the England camp are at an all time high.  England’s fate will be decided at 5pm (GMT) in Bahia, Brazil so in advance BOTN explores what could be England’s worst group.  Using the existing pools (England are in pot 4) and based on the various rules and regulations attached to the draw itself, here is the “Group of Death” for England. It features Spain from Pot 1, Chile from Pot 2 and Mexico form Pot 3 with England filling the final place from Pot 4.

Current World Cup holders, Spain  (Image from Getty)

Current World Cup holders, Spain
(Image from Getty)

The current World and European champions are amongst those in pot one that could pose a real threat to England’s chances. In fact all eight teams, with the possible exception of Switzerland will be a serious threat to England’s qualification hopes. Spain have talent in abundance and are incredibly hard to break down due to their intense passing game. Xavi and Iniesta are likely to dominate the play with Fabergas and Mata as support options. At the back, they have a solid backline with centre back pairing Barcelona’s Gerard Pique and Real Madrid’s Sergio Ramos causing problems for opposition strikers, roaming just in front of Casillas, Reina or Valdes in goal. Upfront Spain’s rich talent pool continues with the likes of Fernando Torres, David Villa, Fernando Llorente and  Roberto Soldado to name a few offering options. Adding to this mix is newly converted Atletico Madrid striker Diego Costa who has been in blistering form so far this season. The Brazilian born striker, who recently pledged his allegiance to Spain instead of his homeland, has forged a successful partnership with David Villa for Atletico. This surely gives Spanish head coach Vicente del Bosque food for thought on whether he should unleash the pair for Spain during next summer’s tournament.

Diego Costa and David Villa  (Image from AFP Getty Images)

Diego Costa and David Villa
(Image from AFP Getty Images)

Chile tested England in their last trip to Wembley just under a month ago as Alexis Sanchez backed up his talking off the pitch with a sublime performance. The Barcelona striker made a sly remark about England’s pathway system for future footballers stating how it was too easy for youngsters to join academies and automatically play for a club in the future. In Chile the academy system is nowhere near as advanced as it is in England but appears to be producing the goods. At Wembley they convincingly beat England 2-0, throwing Roy Hodgson’s plans into disarray. Although England chose to field an altered side for the match allowing them to test some new faces, it was a huge win for the South American’s who have shown with the emergence of star players like Sanchez, Arturo Vidal, Felipe Gutiérrez and Gary Medal that they are a future force in world football.  Pot 3 may be considered to be the weakest pot but within them lies the stinging tail of Mexico who could relinquish all hope for England. With a squad made up of established stars and Olympic winning youthful exuberance, Mexico are considered to be one of the tournaments dark horses. Despite taking a rocky path in qualifying, Mexico’s strength is their desire to succeed which makes them a dangerous opponent.  Upfront, Mexico can call upon Manchester United’s  Javier Hernandez, Valencia’s Giovani Dos Santos or Santos Laguna’s Oribe Peralta to score the goals needed to progress.  In midfield, head coach Miguel Herrera mixes experience in the form of Andres Guardado (who is one game off his century for his country) with up and coming stars like Porto’s Héctor Herrera with some success. He could also spring a few surprises with his final squad selection if Erick Torres or Marco Fabian make the cut. Both players are good examples of the rich talent that Mexico is producing and that England needs to be aware of if they draw them in the World Cup.  

Chile ran out victors the last time they faced England  (Image from PA)

Chile ran out victors the last time they faced England
(Image from PA)

In the World Cup, there is no such thing as an easy team as England have found out in the past. There are various other teams who pose a threat to England’s chances of progression, most noticeably host’s Brazil, a Messi inspired Argentina and arch rivals, Germany. But some of the dark horses could also cause problems such as the Ivory Coast or Ecuador. Ivory Coast has plenty of talent including Manchester City’s Yaya Toure, former Chelsea striker Didier Drogba, Roma’s Gervinho and CSKA Moscow’s Seydou Doumbia. They will be no pushovers, nor will Ecuador who are an improving side and will be a lot tougher than the last time England played them in 2006. Antonio Valencia and Vitesse’s Renato Ibarra are two talented wingers with lots of pace to burn plus with Felipe Caicedo up front, Ecuador could be a real threat. The country is still hurting from the death of legend Christian Benetiz so will be approaching the World Cup with a desire to do well for his memory. The USA are also amongst the group of teams who could be a potential danger as England found out in 2010 in South Africa. Coach Jürgen Klinsmann has spent the past few years experimenting with different players but now has established a nucleus of talent like Clint Dempsey, Jermaine Jones and Michael Bradley that he is building his team around. Added into this the emergence of Brek Shea, Terrance Boyd and Sunderland’s Jozy Altidore, Klinsmann has a strong group that is ready and prepared for the World Cup next year.

Hodgson will be hoping that he is still smiling after the draw  (Image from Getty)

Hodgson will be hoping that he is still smiling after the draw
(Image from Getty)

Hodgson and England will be hoping to avoid such a nightmare by drawing a generous group such as Switzerland, Algeria and Iran. Based on previous draws, England has had luck on their side but can it hold for Brazil? Interestingly one team in pot 4 will be moved into pot 2 just before the draw starts. This is to allow for 4 groups of eight and a somewhat easier drawing process. That said, it is still quite confusing as FIFA will not allow a group to have more than two European teams in it so adjustments will need to be made, ruling out the three European teams in Pot 1 being pulled.  If England were chosen for Pot 2, it could play in their favour or perhaps not. Either way, Hodgson is unlikely to get any sleep tonight as he worries about who his team will face next summer.

Blog by Richard Waterhouse

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