In tough Group B, Uzbeks aim high at Asian Cup
If the 2015 Asian Cup is wide open, Group B appears to be the toughest section of the draw to split. All four contenders — Uzbekistan, China, North Korea and Saudi Arabia — have ambitions of making the latter stages of the tournament.
Three of the teams have appeared at the World Cup this century while the other, Uzbekistan, came within a goal of booking a berth at the 2014 tournament in Brazil.
Uzbekistan also has the highest FIFA ranking, No. 74, of the four teams. The Central Asian team reached the quarterfinals of the 2004 and 2007 Asian Cups and reached the semifinals in 2011.
“The AFC Asian Cup is the biggest tournament in Asia. We have prepared well and are now ready,” coach Mirdjalal Kasimov said. “We are eyeing qualification for the knock-out stage. Then go to the semifinals and win a medal.”
The Uzbek team is led by playmaker Server Djeparov. The two-time Asian Player of the Year made his debut in 2002 and is currently a free agent after being released by Seongnam FC in South Korea. Djeparov is also dangerous from set pieces and will be helped in midfield by the dynamic Odil Ahmedov, one of the stars of the 2011 tournament.
Saudi Arabia and North Korea, meanwhile, have to deal with coaching changes made less than a month before the tournament.
The Saudi team has appeared at all but two Asian Cups since 1980, but had a humiliating first-round exit in 2011 and failed to reach the last round of regional qualification for the 2014 World Cup under former Netherlands and Barcelona boss Frank Rijkaard. Juan Lopez Caro was also fired as Saudi coach last month after the Green Falcons lost the Gulf Cup final to Qatar.
Success in Australia would lift some of the gloom that hangs over a West Asia powerhouse that appeared at every World Cup from 1994 to 2006.
There is cause for optimism for the Saudis. Al Hilal reached the final of the 2014 Asian Champions League before losing to Australia’s Western Sydney Wanderers. Striker Nasser Al Shamrani was named as the AFC Player of the Year and there are other young talents, such as Salem Al Dawsari, coming through.
North Korea’s footballers also enjoyed some encouraging results in 2014. The country’s under-16 team won the Asian Championship, and it had runner-up finishes at Asia’s Under-19 Championship and the Under-23 Asian Games, as well.
Following the latter loss, however, criticism of officials by North Korea coach Yun Jong Su resulted in a stadium ban that will prevent the tactician from coaching at the Asian Cup.
Assistant coach Jo Tong-seob has replaced Yun and omitted Jong Tae Se, a star of the 2010 World Cup, from the squad.
China, the worst performer of all the Asian Cup qualifying teams, is perhaps the most desperate for success following first-round exits in 2007 and 2011.
“We are not the favorite, we do not have the best chance,” said the team’s French coach, Alain Perrin. “What I know is that the players are ready to give the best they can.”