ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates, Jan 5, (AP): Tournament hosts United Arab Emirates needed a late penalty from a handball to salvage a 1-1 draw with Bahrain in the opening match of the Asian Cup on Saturday. Bahrain were close to taking a win over their regional rivals when Mohamed Al Rohaimi scored from the center of the area in the 78th minute. But Mohamed Marhoon handled the ball in the box, sending Ahmed Khalil to the spot to snatch the equalizer with two minutes remaining.
UAE and Bahrain share Group A with India and Thailand. Australia, the 2015 champions start their title defense on Sunday when they play Jordan in Group B. The tournament in the UAE is the biggest ever having expanded from 16 teams in 2015 to 24 teams. The biggest-ever Asian Cup has a large collection of international coaching heavyweights providing extra glamor.
Only one of them knows what it’s like to win the biggest prize in world soccer: Marcello Lippi led Italy to the World Cup title in 2006. More recently, Lippi has won Chinese Super League and Asian Champions League titles with Guangzhou Evergrande. But the Italian has an uphill task ensuring a disappointing two-year spell in charge of China ends with silverware before his expected retirement.
“The coach has emphasized three points for a successful team,” China defender Liu Yang said. “First of all, experience. Second, the positivity and excitement of young players and third, the desire for winning. I think if we can do well on these three points, we will not have regrets whatever the result of the competition.” China enters the Asian Cup in the United Arab Emirates with one win in seven games, including disappointing draws against Palestine, India and Bahrain.
A runners-up in 1984 and 2004, China opens their campaign Monday against Kyrgyzstan, followed by matches against the Philippines and South Korea in Group C. A former Real Madrid and Portugal coach, Carlos Queiroz has genuine hopes of winning with Iran after eight years in charge of Asia’s topranked team. But the longest-serving coach in the tournament also knows how to downplay expectations. “The responsibility to win this competition is on the shoulders of Japan, Australia, South Korea,” Queiroz said Friday.
“Those are the countries that they are really, really in front of the rest of Asia.” Just like the European Championship added eight countries in 2016, its Asian counterpart has also made the jump to 24 teams. Expansion has opened the door for Kyrgyzstan, the Philippines and Yemen to make their Asian Cup debuts. A title winner with clubs in Sweden, Portugal and Italy, Sven-Goran Eriksson has little prospect of winning the Asian Cup with the Philippines. For the Swede hired in October, it’s all about being among the 16 teams to make it through to the knockout phase. “With this generation of players, the Philippines have the chance to show that football is good in the Philippines,” said Eriksson, who took England to the quarterfinals of the World Cup in 2002 and 2006.
“If we can go through that will mean a lot for the country.” The hosts also have an Italian coach. But Alberto Zaccheroni, who led AC Milan to the 1999 Serie A title, has struggled in charge of the United Arab Emirates. The team only scored seven goals in 11 games last year. Regional rivals Saudi Arabia have been in better form under Juan Antonio Pizzi, the Argentine who led Chile to the 2016 Copa America title.
Compatriot Hector Cuper, a cup winner with clubs in Argentina and Spain, is in charge of Uzbekistan. After winning the 2015 edition at home, Australia are strong favorites to make the final again on Feb 1 in Abu Dhabi. Although the Socceroos will be without injured Huddersfield midfielder Aaron Mooy, Hertha Berlin attacker Mathew Leckie will remain with the squad after making good progress recovering from a hamstring injury. South Korea, led by former Portugal coach Paulo Bento, also has injury issues but possesses the biggest name in Asian soccer in Son Heung-min.
The in-form Tottenham attacker will miss the first two group games and arrive in time to take on China on Jan 16, although he has apologized to his Premier League club for leaving mid-season. “I feel sorry for my teammates, the fans and the coaching staff,” Son said. “It’s difficult. Sometimes you think it’s a bit sad, but it is also important for my country. I hope I can keep my form for the national team and when I come back here again as well.” Japan, one of the few countries with a domestic coach in Hajime Moriyasu, was Asia’s most successful team at the 2018 World Cup and is also considered to be a front-runner. The tournament is being staged against the background of regional tensions.
In 2017, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia broke off diplomatic relations and cut travel ties with Qatar. That sets the stage for a highly-charged groupstage game between the Saudis and 2022 World Cup host Qatar. There is also a chance of a knockout stage game between South and North Korea, who are technically still at war but have enjoyed better diplomatic relations recently. Both Yemen and Syria have a chance to make some international headlines that do not involve the ongoing confl ict taking place at home. Soccer continues to survive and Syria especially has ambitions of progressing to the last eight and perhaps beyond.