2019 Asian Cup talking points: Bravo AFC, China's marathon man and wounded Australia
Hosts UAE kick off the tournament on Saturday when they face Bahrain in Abu Dhabi
Is bigger always better?
More than half the sovereign nations of the Asian Football Confederation have teams in the UAE for this, the largest ever edition of its showpiece. Bravo to the AFC for inclusivity. The expansion of the Asian Cup is, naturally, widely applauded by those countries whose horizons were previously limited to local neighbourhood tournaments.
Bravo, too, for fitting in with wider trends. The 24-nation event is now the fashion, with this year’s Africa Cup of Nations also increasing in size, like the Asian Cup, up from 16 finalists, as did Uefa's 2016 European Championship in France. But the lessons from that competition were that bigger does not necessarily mean better - or make for more proactive or entertaining football, particularly when four teams who finish in third place in their groups will qualify for a 16-team knockout phase.
It means managers can make the calculation that three points from their first three matches gives them a decent chance of progress. Look at Portugal, who drew all their group matches at Euro 2016 and went on to lift the trophy having got into the habit of eking glory from draws: The Portuguese won only one of their six games within 90 minutes.
The hope in the coming weeks must be that not too many of Asia’s top 24 take that as a template. After all, the Asian Cup has a fine tradition of anti-stalemate football to keep up. The last edition waited 26 matches before it saw its first draw.
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Asia on the up
Most of all, arguments for an expanded finals would be settled by evidence that standards are rising. In 2018 there were hints that Asian football’s might be. At the World Cup in Russia, where five Asian nations competed, Asia had more teams than Africa, and as many as North and Central America in the knockout phase.
Granted, that number was just one, but, once into the last 16, Japan produced one of the most startling hours of the tournament, going 2-0 up against Belgium before the eventual bronze medallists came back in stoppage time of their last-16 tie. Japan had beaten Colombia in their opening game, one of four victories by teams from the Asian confederation in Russia, including the stirring win by South Korea over Germany.
But as notable as any of those were the achievements of Al Ain at last month’s Fifa World Club Cup. Reaching the final, having eliminated Copa Libertadores winners River Plate, was a feather in the cap of the region. The AFC has now supplied two of the Club World Cup’s last four silver-medallists.
China’s marathon man
Seventeen years ago, Zheng Zhi made his senior international debut for China. At the grand old age of 38, the 2013 Asian Footballer of the Year is set to play in his fifth such tournament. The concern for the ambitious Chinese is that, after 104 caps, the admired Zheng barely looks over his shoulder at a stampede of younger competition for his elevated status. Uniquely among the current squad, he can remember what it is to reach an Asian Cup final, as he did in 2004. China have reached the knockout rounds only once since.
A late winter Son
South Korea’s deal to let Son Heung-min stay with his club Tottenham Hotspur until mid-January and come late to the tournament - payback for his efforts in August to help them win the Asian Games - seems eminently reasonable. But is it a risk to wait until the third group game, against China, without lining up the sharp-shooting Son, their superstar? The Koreans habitually qualify without much anxiety for at least the last eight, but on the evidence of a lacklustre 0-0 draw against Saudi Arabia on Monday, they might need Son’s verve and expert finishing sooner than they imagine.
Woundeds of Oz
Having lost a pair of totems, Tim Cahill and Mile Jedinak, to international retirement since they lifted their first Asian Cup four years, Australia had been hoping to launch their title defence with a fresh, younger set of Socceroo figureheads. Injuries have dented those hopes. Aaron Mooy and Daniel Arzani are both ruled out, and attacking options have been weakened further with Martin Boyle picking up a damaging knock and Mathew Leckie a hamstring problem. Leckie, the Hertha Berlin forward, may recover to play some part in the tournament, but the champions look somewhat fragile.
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Updated: January 4, 2019 08:52 AM