North Korea vs Saudi Arabia; Uzbekistan vs China in Group B
BRISBANE, Australia (AP) — Two teams are playing to avoid elimination in the second set of matches in Group B on Wednesday, with North Korea playing three-time champion Saudi Arabia in Melbourne, and China against 2011 semifinalist Uzbekistan in Brisbane.
Here’s some things to watch:
NORTH KOREA vs. SAUDI ARABIA (0700 GMT)
North Korea’s scoreless run at the Asian Cup extended to 381 minutes after its 2015 tournament-opening 1-0 loss to Uzbekistan. The Saudis aren’t faring a lot better, though, following a 1-0 opening loss to China that extended a run of Asian Cup defeats. Naif Hazazi missed the only shot on target against China — a penalty in the 61st minute. Saudi Arabia lost all of its group matches in the 2011 edition and is determined to end that streak. Saudi Arabia has the advantage in head-to-heads, with three wins and just one loss in their previous eight meetings.
The Saudi squad had a major setback ahead of its opening match when striker Nassir Al Shamrani, the Asian player of the year, was ruled out of the tournament due to injury.
Another loss for either team could mean they’re out of contention for the knockout stage, depending on what happens in the other group match between Uzbekistan and China.
“It’s a difficult game, and an important game for us,” Saudi defender Osama Hawsawi said. “We have to win this game to keep our chances of qualifying from the group. We have to fight.”
North Korea will rely heavily on its four foreign-based players, including Pak Kwang Ryong, who joined Swiss club FC Basel on a five-year deal in 2011.
“I know that our first match wasn’t very good but, importantly, we have two matches ahead, and if we carry out our original tactics and strategies as planned, then I am quite sure we can win the remaining two matches no matter who the opponents are,” Pak said. “What we are doing now is preparing ourselves mentally and concentrating only on winning the next match and not looking back at the unhappy memories.”
The 22-year-old Pak said he’d been sharing his experience gained in Europe with his national teammates.
“I see the differences of football in Europe and Asia, and what I learn in my club could be a help to our (national) team,” he said.
North Korea coach Jo Tong Sop, who took over in December when Yun Jong Su received a one-year suspension from all AFC competitions as punishment for an altercation with match officials during the 2014 Asian Games, said the squad had taken some encouragement from the recent attention of North Korea leader Kim Jong Un.
“He was giving us invaluable instructions on many things like training and taking care of players,” Jo was quoted as saying by Australian Associated Press. “He also gives us very great love. We are very much grateful for that.”
CHINA vs. UZBEKISTAN (0900 GMT)
Both teams are coming off narrow wins and are in prime position to advance with another victory.
Igor Sergeev scored in Uzbekistan’s opener, giving him four goals in his last five competitive internationals, as part of an attacking unit that attempted more shots (16) in its opening game than the other three Group B teams combined.
Uzbekistan has beaten China twice and had one draw in their previous Asian Cup meetings, and has had steadier results in recent qualifying competitions.
China coach Alain Perrin picked out Uzbekistan’s Server Djeparov and Timur Kapadze for their experience in the knockout stage at the continental championship.
“We have made a very good start at this tournament,” Perrin said, but “Uzbekistan are a much stronger opponent as they are now ranked as the fourth-best team in Asia, and played in the semifinals of the 2011 Asian Cup.
“We need to improve to play against this strong team. In the last Asian Cup, we also played Uzbekistan and the result was a 2-2 draw, so this time we are looking for a better result.”