SYDNEY (AFP) – With hosts Australia in a state of flux and holders Japan engulfed by scandal, the Asian Cup looks to be the most-wide open in years.
Redemption for a humiliating 2014 World Cup beckons should Australia, Japan, South Korea or Iran win Asia’s showcase tournament, which begins on January 9 when the Socceroos face Kuwait in Melbourne.
The quartet flopped badly in Brazil as Asia failed to register a single victory for the first time since 1990, a new-look Australia arguably emerging with the most credit.
But coach Ange Postecoglou must find an alchemist’s touch to replace a golden generation of players who qualified for three successive World Cups – or at the very least, a quick fix with his side short on firepower in attack.
Much of the responsibility will fall on talisman Tim Cahill, who lit up the World Cup with a stunning volley against the Netherlands but will need his supporting cast to step up.
“We have to be ruthless,” the former Everton forward told the Sydney Morning Herald. “If we are ruthless, teams are not going to know what’s hit them.”
Australia have added incentive after being upset by Japan in the 2011 final in Doha, but the defending champions will be a tough nut to crack, while 2002 World Cup semifinalists South Korea lurk for the hosts in Group A.
However, pressure will also be on Japan, whose Mexican coach Javier Aguirre is under investigation following claims of match-fixing while he was manager of Spanish club Zaragoza in 2011.
To what extent the furore unsettles the Blue Samurai remains to be seen but Aguirre, who is scheduled to appear in court in Valencia next month, has raised eyebrows with his team selection since taking over after the World Cup.
“All my attention is focused on winning the Asian Cup,” Aguirre told reporters before flying to Australia. “I have nothing to hide and understand the media have a job to do, but that is my sole objective.”
Failure at the Asian Cup could end in the termination of his contract, however, although the four-time champions will be expected to comfortably negotiate their first-round group, which also features Jordan, Iraq and war-torn Palestine.
Iraq overcame conflict and turmoil to win the Asian Cup in 2007 but Uzbekistan could prove the best of the rest this time around, with the United Arab Emirates and Qatar also potentially dangerous to the top sides.
But with no outright tournament favourite, the title could come down to which team has the courage to abandon caution and take risks.
South Korea last lifted the trophy in 1960 – the year Muhammad Ali, then Cassius Clay, won Olympic boxing gold — and will be hoping that the success of their Under-23 side in winning last year’s Asian Games rubs off on the senior team, despite their own lack of cutting edge.
Iran, led by former Portugal and Real Madrid coach Carlos Queiroz, will also be looking to make an impact after a disappointing World Cup, but the three-time Asian champions have struggled to fill the void left by the likes of Ali Karimi, Mehdi Mahdavikia and record goalscorer Ali Daei.