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Jeddah - Yasmine El Tohamy - Saudi Arabia may be leading the Arab challenge at the Asian Cup that kicks off in Qatar on Friday but there is also the small matter of the challenge from the east.
Any team that has ambitions of lifting the trophy are going to have to get past Japan or South Korea, and maybe both. It is going to need Roberto Mancini and his players to be at their best.
It is not only about East versus West but a clash between teams that are full of big-name stars who play for elite clubs in the biggest European leagues, and one that is fully domestic-based.
At present, Japan are not only the best team in Asia but one of the best in the world, certainly higher than their present ranking of 17. At the World Cup, the Samurai Blue defeated 2010 and 2014 champions Spain and Germany and really should have got past Croatia in the second round before losing a penalty shootout. Japan are the only Asian nation that sees a World Cup second round as slightly disappointing.
The team has continued to improve. The last nine games were not only won by the four-time Asian champions but 39 goals were scored. The 4-1 away win over Germany last September is one of the best, if not the best, friendly result ever from an Asian team.
That win over the four-time world champions may have been eye-catching but there are other scorelines that should have the other 23 nations in Qatar worried. There have been three successive 5-0 wins. While the first was at home to a weak Myanmar team, the other two came against Syria in another World Cup qualifier in Jeddah and then a warm-up against Thailand.
Both those teams have genuine ambitions of getting to the knockout stage of the Asian Cup. Syria may not be quite the team that almost qualified for the 2018 World Cup but are solid opposition in continental terms, coached by former Inter and Valencia boss Hector Cuper, but they were swatted aside. Then came Thailand on Jan. 1, the best team in Southeast Asia. It was goalless at half-time but then Japan just stepped up a gear and that was that.
New Thailand coach Masatadi Ishii was impressed and said there was “a big difference between the two teams.”
“I had only watched Japan’s games on TV before, and you really notice their speed and accuracy when you face them at close quarters,” he added.
Japan, four-time champions, are favorites for the title, but South Korea, ranked 23, are not far behind. They have not been quite as impressive as their regional rivals since defeating Portugal to move into the last 16 of the 2022 World Cup where they lost to Brazil, but they have the biggest stars in Asian football.
Son Heung-min is currently the joint-second top scorer in the English Premier League this season with 12 goals. The Tottenham Hotspur captain is not the only South Korean starring in the world’s most high refill league — Hwang Hee-chan’s 10 goals for Wolverhampton Wanderers put him sixth in the scoring standings and on the shopping lists of many clubs.
Just behind the forwards is Lee Kang-in, a supremely talented creative midfielder settling in at Paris Saint-Germain and then just behind Lee is Kim Min-jae. The big center-back won the Serie A title with Napoli before joining Bayern Munich and becoming the first Asian defender to be nominated for the Ballon D’Or. Jurgen Klinsmann has plenty of talent to work with.
Mancini has too and has won the English Premier League and Serie A as a coach, as well as the European Championships in 2021. His experience in winning an international tournament means Saudi Arabia are not to be underestimated either.
The Green Falcons, ranked at 56, may not be full of European stars but the entire squad now plays every week with and against some of the best players in the world.
The foreign influx has no doubt helped raise the standards of many Saudi players. Saud Abdulhamid impressed hugely at the World Cup but the Al-Hilal right-back has only improved since playing alongside the likes of Aleksandar Mitrovic, Neymar, Ruben Neves, Sergej Milinkovic-Savic, Kalidou Koulibaly and Yassine Bounou. Then there are his Saudi Arabia teammates Salem Al-Dawsari, Mohamed Kanno and others.
For Saudi Arabia these days, facing big stars on the pitch is a weekly occurrence.
The three-time winners are the best bet of the Arab world as defending champions Qatar and the UAE do not seem to have what it takes. Iran are the other contenders from the region. Team Melli, ranked 21, has Mehdi Taremi, one of Asia’s top strikers as he has shown again and again for FC Porto in Portugal and the Champions League. Sardar Azmoun is with Roma and Saman Ghoddos at Brentford.
The big challenge is likely to come from elsewhere and Mancini is not alone in knowing that, at some point on the road to glory at the Asian Cup, the stars of East Asia are going to have to be dealt with.
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