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What to look for Sunday at the Asian Cup

January 10, 2015

MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) — Three-time champion Iran, which has the highest current ranking among all the teams competing at the Asian Cup, kicks off its campaign against Bahrain, the second of two Group C matches scheduled Sunday:

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IRAN vs. BAHRAIN: Iran is one of the Cup favorites and is expected to advance from an all-West Asia group. The Iranians won the continental title in three consecutive tournaments from 1968 to 1976, but two of those were at home. Team Melli hasn’t added another Asian title since.

But there’s extra confidence in the team heading into this tournament, with Carlos Queiroz staying on as coach after the World Cup and star forward Reza Ghoochannejhad leading the scorers in Asian Cup qualifying. He also scored for Iran at the World Cup in Brazil.

“We qualified with the best record of all the teams and Iran fans are expecting big things of us,” Ghoochannejhad said. “We need to go out and do our job and forget about the pressure. We’ve been working well for the last year and I hope we can keep on making progress. I have a lot of faith in our coaching staff and Carlos Queiroz. With him by our side, we’re sure to succeed.”

Iran had a setback only days before the tournament when versatile fullback Hashem Beikzadeh was ruled out after breaking his hand in practice.

Queiroz said the absence of the 30-year-old defender had caused “big damage” to the team, particularly after fellow defender Pejman Montazeri was ruled out last month.

Still, Queiroz is confident Iran will reach the knockout stage despite a lack of practice matches and the disruptions.

“No excuses, no explanations, no sorry, we are just here to play the game,” Queiroz said. “And with the team spirit that we’ve been showing in the other games, we have a good chance.”

This will be Iran’s 13th appearance at the Asian Cup, equal with South Korea. The Iranians have scored more goals (112) than any other team in the tournament, and were the only squad to win all three group games at the 2011 edition.

Bahrain has lost five of its past seven games at the Asian Cup finals, but comes into the 2015 tournament after conceding just one goal in qualifying.

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UNITED ARAB EMIRATES vs. QATAR: The Qataris, who are building toward hosting the 2022 World Cup and are coming off their first Gulf Cup of Nations title in a decade, are expected to trouble the top teams in the tournament.

“The first match always difficult, and if you win it’s 70 to 80 percent for qualification to the second round,” Qatar striker Meshal Abdullah said. “The UAE is a very good team with a lot of talent, we respect them, but we are not scared of them.”

Both teams have been knocked out of the Asian Cup at the group stage at each of the past three tournaments.

The UAE had a 2-1 win over Qatar when the teams met in the group stage in 2007.

The UAE failed to score a goal at Qatar 2011 but tallied 18 — level in top spot with Iran — in five wins and a draw in the qualifying tournament for Australia. UAE’s Ali Mabkhout shared the individual scoring honors in the qualifying tournament with Iran forward Ghoochannejhad.

Ali Mabkhout was also leading scorer in the recent Gulf Cup of Nations, with five goals.

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