January 23, 2019 – South Korea, defending champion Australia and Japan made it through to the Asian Cup quarterfinals knowing there is much room for improvement as the continental tournament enters its finals stages.
Even with the arrival of Son Heung-min from Tottenham, South Korea struggled to get past Bahrain, ranked 60 places lower by FIFA at 113, in yesterday’s second-round game in Dubai. It needed an extra-time goal from Kim Jin-su to settle the encounter and book a quarterfinal with Qatar.
“It was a tough game.” Son told reporters. “It’s all about attitude as well, and I’m a bit unhappy with our performance. I think we’re better than that.”
Australia, which beat the South Koreans in the 2015 final on home soil, needed a penalty shootout to get past Uzbekistan after 120 minutes of action ended goalless.
Japan was also below its best in eliminating Saudi Arabia 1-0, leaving Iran and Qatar as the best performers so far.
The quarterfinals take place on Thursday and Friday with the final held in Abu Dhabi on Feb.1.
One of two big-name coaches will likely finish their current job after Thursday’s showdown in Abu Dhabi. Carlos Queiroz has been in charge of Iran since 2011 and has led the team to become the highest-ranked in Asia.
The contract of the former Real Madrid coach ends after the tournament and the 65 year-old Queiroz has been widely linked with the vacant Colombia job.
Iran, the most consistent of the continental teams so far, is expected to record its fifth straight victory at the tournament.
Marcello Lippi will step down as China’s head coach after the team’s exit. The 2006 World Cup-winning coach has struggled at times but victory over Iran would be the Italian’s best result in his two years in charge of China’s national team.
Japan, seeking a fifth title, has won all four games so far. A second round 1-0 win over Saudi Arabia came as a result of a solid defensive performance from the team which has fewer big stars such as Keisuke Honda, Shinji Kagawa and Shinji Okazaki than in the past.
Japan, which reached the second round at last year’s World Cup, has yet to find its fluency in attack under coach Hajime Moriyasu but will still be expected to win against Vietnam in Dubai.
Vietnam is riding a wave led by South Korean coach Park Hang-seo. The penalty shootout win over Jordan in the previous round provoked street parties across the southeast Asian country, to rival those that greeted the win in the regional championship in December.
That would be nothing compared with the celebrations that would ensue should a young and talented Vietnam team, which has recovered well after losing its first two group games, defeats Japan.
Australia held off Uzbekistan courtesy of a penalty shootout but will be without the suspended influential playmaker Tom Rogic against the tournament hosts in Al Ain on Friday.
The Socceroos bounced back after an opening loss to Jordan but have yet to show the form of title-winner and have especially struggled against teams that have sat deep.
United Arab Emirates may be playing on home soil but is also yet to find its form in the tournament.
A lack of goals was a concern for coach Alberto Zaccheroni before the competition started. Those worries have eased somewhat after the 3-2 win over Kyrgyzstan in the second round, but the backline appeared vulnerable with the woodwork denying the Central Asians on three occasions.
Another fancied team that has yet to move into top gear despite four wins out of four, South Korea had to work hard to get past Bahrain 2-1 after extra time.
Without injured captain and Newcastle United midfielder Ki Sung-yueng who has returned to England, the South Koreans have struggled to either create or convert chances.
Son Heung-min was peripheral and the Tottenham star is yet to score in the tournament. He should enjoy more space against Qatar on in Abu Dhabi on Friday.
Along with Iran, Qatar has been the most impressive team in the tournament so far, winning all four games without conceding a goal. In Almoez Ali, the 2022 World Cup host also has the top scorer of the tournament so far with seven goals.