SYDNEY (AFP) – Five players to watch at the Asian Cup, which starts in Melbourne on Friday:
TIM CAHILL, Australia
Position: Forward/attacking midfielder
Club: New York Red Bulls, United States
No player typifies Australia’s indefatigable spirit more than Tim Cahill, the former Everton star who scored one of the most spectacular World Cup goals ever in Brazil last year. In the twilight of a glittering career at 35 years old, the pugnacious attacking midfielder still has a knack for popping up with important goals and will be key to the Socceroos as they host the Asian Cup.
Though Australia’s so-called “golden generation” may have gone, Cahill’s presence will be a steadying influence to a team in transition.
Cahill, currently with the New York Red Bulls, was the first Australian to score at a World Cup against Japan in 2006, when Australia reached the last 16, and is his country’s all-time top goalscorer.
However, he will need his supporting cast to step up at the Asian Cup, where Australia have little margin for error with South Korea in the same group. Cahill’s uncanny ability to find space in the box and chip in with goals could once again prove crucial in what may be his international swansong.
NASSIR AL SHAMRANI, Saudi Arabia
Club: Al Hilal
The Asian Cup hasn’t even started yet and it already has its pantomime villain – Nassir Al Shamrani, the prolific but controversial star of Saudi club Al Hilal and, despite his transgressions, the reigning Asian player of the year.
Combustible Shamrani earned comparisons to notorious World Cup shoulder-biter Luis Suarez when he spat and aimed a headbutt at Western Sydney Wanderers’ Matthew Spiranovic after last year’s AFC Champions League final, sparking an unseemly melee and earning an eight-match ban.
And Shamrani’s reputation dropped still further when he appeared to shove a fan on his way out of the tunnel before last week’s 4-1 friendly loss to Bahrain in Geelong, near Melbourne.
Despite the furore surrounding him, defenders will be wary of the man dubbed “the Saudi destroyer” who hit 10 goals for Al Hilal in their run to the Champions League final – a performance which earned him the nod as Asian player of the year in December, before his suspension from Champions League matches was announced days later.
KEISUKE HONDA, Japan
Club: AC Milan, Italy
Japan’s talisman, Honda often sets the tone for the way the Blue Samurai play and will again be the driving force behind the team’s quest to successfully defend the title they won in Doha four years ago.
The yin to Shinji Kagawa’s yang, Honda wears his heart on his sleeve, breaking down in tears after Japan’s World Cup flop last year and slamming the team as “pathetic” – four years after propelling them to the last 16 in South Africa.
Honda’s failure to inspire Japan in Brazil did little to dampen media speculation that he had undergone surgery for a suspected thyroid problem, rumours fuelled by his apparent weight loss and a plaster on his neck. But his recent form for both club and country suggests he is back to his best.
A marauding midfielder possessing a ferocious long-range shot, Honda has assumed the mantle of Japan’s most recognisable player from former captain Hidetoshi Nakata, with whom he shares a prickly persona and a penchant for brightly coloured hairdos.
Japan’s hopes of retaining the Asian Cup rest largely on Honda’s shoulders and if he is firing – and Javier Aguirre’s side manage to fix their defensive jitters – they will be hard to stop in Australia.
SON HEUNG-MIN, South Korea
Position: Winger, forward
Club: Bayer Leverkusen
South Korean stand-out Son Heung-Min will attempt to lead the Taeguk Warriors out of an Asian Cup dry spell which stretches back more than half-a-century to 1960.
The dynamic, two-footed wing-cum-forward is a firm favourite with Bayer Leverkusen fans with 11 goals in all competitions already this season for the German club.
Son’s exploits have reportedly attracted attention from the English Premier League, where teams including Manchester United have been linked with the Korean star in recent weeks.
And the Asian Cup could prove the perfect showcase for a player carrying a reported $30 million price tag.
But Son will need support from his team-mates, now under German coach Uli Steilike, if he is to revive the fortunes of goal-shy South Korea, who bombed out of the World Cup at the group stage.
Son signed for Hamburg shortly after his 16th birthday and when he was briefly released by the German club, he responded by firing three goals in five games at the Under 17 World Cup – a performance which earned him a rapid recall.
Son, who credits his coach father Son Wong-Jung for much of his success, signed for Bayer Leverkusen for $16 million in 2013 and he has proved a fine investment, scoring 12 goals in his debut season.
ZHENG ZHI, China
Club: Guangzhou Evergrande
Zheng Zhi was a hit at Charlton Athletic and Celtic, and with enduring form he remains a mainstay for club and country at the age of 34.
As captain and all-action midfielder, Zheng was named Asian player of the year as recently as 2013 after leading Guangzhou Evergrande to claim China’s first title in the AFC Champions League.
Success has been harder to come by at international level, although Zheng is a veteran of China’s run to the 2004 Asian Cup final on home soil.
But his three-year stint in England and Scotland from 2007-2010 made him China’s most successful export of recent years and one of Asian football’s hottest properties. Zheng will be hopeful of a strong showing in what is almost certainly his last Asian Cup. And he showed he still has what it takes with a wickedly dipping strike in November’s 1-1 draw with New Zealand which left observers scratching their heads.