This is the 5th time that a quarterfinals stage has been played at the Asian Cup. The first 4 championships saw a single round-robin group for the finals.
The next 6 tournaments witnessed two-group finals with top two teams from each progressing to a semifinals stage.
In these last 5 championships, including this edition, we have seen the traditional powers of Asia making it to the quarterfinals stage each time. These are Japan, Iran, South Korea and Iraq.
The other quarter-finalists are making their return for the second time (Australia, Qatar and Jordan) or the third time (Uzbekistan). The notable absentees this time are Saudi Arabia and China which reached this stage 3 times out of 5. Other previous quarter-finalists who failed this time are Kuwait (twice), UAE, Bahrain and Vietnam (once).
Here are the match-ups.
Iran vs. South Korea (Saturday 11:25 am EST)
It doesn’t get any bigger in the Asian Cup. Both teams hold the record for appearances in the finals with 12 and they have played the most games (Iran 57 and South Korea 53, including this cup). Between them, they have won the cup 5 times but all of them came in the first 6 championships.
Since 1976, neither one was able to lift the trophy, in spite of their success in making it on to the World Cup stage. In total, they played each other 6 times in the finals and twice in the qualification with Iran having the better record with 4 wins and 3 losses and 1 draws. One of the losses came on PKs in 2007 QF. Total 28 goals were scored, favoring Iran: 16 – 12.
Even more interesting is the fact that since the introduction of the quarterfinals stage in 1996, they have met in this stage every time. Iran won twice (1996 and 2004) and South Korea twice (2000 and 2007). Each time the winner went on to lose the semifinals and win the third place game.
Probably, this fact was on the mind of the Koreans when they tried hard to get that extra goal against India to win the group and avoid Iran, but destiny had another plan for them.
This game is well balanced and both teams provided consistently good performances in the group stage.
Iran is the only team with a perfect record so far, in spite of playing in the most difficult group and the many changes that they had to make due to the flu and the fact that they qualified early.
South Korea has one of the top player of the tournament in the joint top goal-scorer Koo Ja-Cheol with 4 goals. Park Ji Song is playing in his swan song tournament for his country and his strong contribution as one of the candidates for the MVP of the cup, might be the difference that favors South Korea over Iran but it promises to be a good game with a lot of goals.
Japan vs. Qatar (Friday 8:25 am EST)
No one knows which Qatar team will show up for Japan. Is it the entertaining attack-minded Qatar, seen in the first halves of the games against China and Kuwait, the defense-minded one seen in the second halves of both games, or, even worse, the totally lackluster performing team in the opener?
The answer lies with the French coach Bruno Metsu, the famous coach who took Senegal to the quarterfinals of WC 2002 and the UAE to the Gulf cup 2007 title and Al-Ain club to the AFC Champions League 2003 title.
Japan, with all their history, doesn’t have good record against Qatar. Since 1988, they played them three times in the group stages and they lost one game and drew two, scoring 2 goals and conceding 5.
Their performances in this cup are not consistent either. They were lucky to get points against Jordan and Syria. Saudi Arabia was demoralized when they played them and that led to the big loss.
Yet, Japan has shown periods of beautiful soccer and is capable of lifting up their game. Their European based players should be fired up and ready for the host Qatar. I give the edge to Japan.
Australia vs. Iraq (Saturday 8:25 am EST)
This is a second meeting in a row between these two. They met in 2007 group stage and Iraq won 3-1 on its way to winning the tournament.
Iraq keeps defying all logical reasoning. A team with so much trouble at home and playing most of their games outside their country is still capable of producing good performances.
They managed to escape a tough group and dispose of World Cup finalist, North Korea. They can give any team a hard time, including the favorite Australia.
Australia’s coach, Holger Osieck, is well known to the Canadian fans. He was at the helm when Canada won the Gold Cup in 2000. He also helped the Urawa Red to win the AFC Champions League.
Australia is boosting the most European based players of all the participants (16 players; five of which in the EPL), but they will not have Blackburn’s Emerton for this game and there is a doubt about Everton’s Tim Cahill because of injury.
But yet, they are still one of the best team in the competition and should be able to avenge their loss to Iraq. My pick is Australia.
Uzbekistan vs. Jordan (Friday 11:25 am EST)
These teams have never met in the Asian Cup before and both are shooting for their first appearance in the final four.
Uzbekistan is one of the most consistent teams in the cup and they are playing a wonderful brand of attacking soccer. Their stars, Akhmedov and Djeparov are strong candidates for the MVP award.
They have a team that can fire on all cylinders and their long range shots are the best in this tournament. Three of their goals are strong candidates for goal of the tournament. I wouldn’t be surprised if they win it all.
Jordan is the luckiest team of the championship. They have a strong defense and the best goalkeeper, Shafi, that kept them in with huge saves. But they will be without some of their top players due to injury or suspension.
Most notable absentee is their striker Al- Saifi who scored the winner against Syria and then went out injured. In spite of gaining 7 points and scoring 4 goals, Jordan had only 6 shots on goal in three games (the lowest, alongside Kuwait.) It looks like the end of the road for them.
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