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What to look for Saturday at the Asian Cup

January 9, 2015

SYDNEY (AP) — South Korea kicks off its bid for its first Asian Cup title since 1960 with a Group A match against Oman in Canberra, the Australian capital. It’s one of three group matches across three cities on Saturday, with China against Saudi Arabia in Brisbane and Uzbekistan taking on North Korea in Sydney.

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SOUTH KOREA vs. OMAN: The message from East Asian champion South Korea is that three points are crucial, particularly with a last group game coming against host Australia, one of the favorites to win the trophy.

Since a dreadful World Cup when it collected just one point, South Korea’s performances under new coach Uli Stielike have been encouraging and they completed preparations with a 2-0 win in a friendly against Saudi Arabia on Sunday.

“We know what this tournament means and the players and the coach will all do our best to win,” said star midfielder Ki Seung-yeung, who plays Swansea City in the Premier League. “We know what we have to do and it’s time to show that.”

Among the selection dilemmas for Stielike are whether to stick with World Cup goalkeeper Jung Seung-ryong or use Kim Jin-hyun, and if he should use Cho Yong-cheol in the problematic central stiker role after he grabbed his first international goal against Saudi Arabia.

Left-sided attacker Son Heung-min, who plays for Bayer Leverkusen, is fit and in excellent form. The 22-year-old Son, with 11 goals already for this season for the German club, will be a real threat to Oman.

Making matters worse for Oman is the loss of experienced right-back Saeed Suhail to injury in a warm-up game with China in Sydney earlier in the week which they lost 4-1.

Oman, aiming to progress from the group stage of the Asian Cup for the first time, arrived in Australia on the back of an encouraging performance at the Gulf Cup, where it reached the semifinals.

Coach Paul Le Guen, formerly of Lyon, Paris St. Germain and Glasgow Rangers, said “I have faith in my boys. They can deliver.”

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UZBEKISTAN vs. NORTH KOREA: Uzbekistan, which reached the quarterfinals in 2004 and 2007 and the semifinals in the previous tournament, is aiming to continue that upward progress in Australia.

“We have a good balance in our squad,” Uzbekistan captain Server Djeparov told The Associated Press. “We just missed out on the World Cup and that was hard to take, but now we will do our best to have success at the Asian Cup.”

The North Korea squad has kept its standard low profile since arriving in Australia, keeping public appearances to a minimum. This tournament may come a little too soon for a young team, despite its unbeaten run in its past 14 competitive matches, excluding friendlies.

North Korea — most famous for reaching the 1966 World Cup semifinals — has not advanced beyond the group stage in its past two Asian Cup appearances in 1992 and 2011.

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CHINA vs. SAUDI ARABIA: Both nations are looking to translate their off-field wealth and influence into on-field success, with progress to the knockout stages being the bare minimum pass mark.

Neither managed that in 2011; the second successive early exit for China.

China coach Alain Perrin has been in charge since last February and after a slow start has been coaxing encouraging performances out of a young team, including the friendly win over Oman.

“We are not the favorite, we do not have the best chance,” Perrin said. “What I know is that the players are ready to give the best they can ... anything is possible.”

The Saudis have reached the semifinals in four of the past six Asian Cup tournaments, but have only lifted the trophy once from those four trips. The Saudi squad lost all three group games at Qatar 2011.

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