The 2007 AFC Asian Cup starts on July 7th bringing together the 16 best footballing nations from across the region. In a format common to international soccer tournaments, the teams are divided into four groups, with each featuring just one of the quartet of hosts – Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam.
There will be some familiar faces to European soccer fans in action, but many of the sides will be off the radar of mainstream soccer. For bettors to stand a chance of profiting from the tournament they must start doing their homework on the lesser known nations, then take advantage of the 60% better AFC Asian Cup odds available at PinnacleSports.com.
Consistent Chinese Looking for Elusive Title
The Chinese national football side has made the final four of the AFC Cup in six of the last eight competitions, suffering as losing finalists on two occasions including at the last tournament. The 2004 final represented their best opportunity of overall success taking place on home territory, but despite overwhelming support China lost 3-1 to Japan. As part of the overall improvement in Chinese sporting standards in the build up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, their football side is also making big strides.
Increasing numbers of players are now gaining experience in European leagues such as Li Tei (Sheffield United), Sun Juhai (Man City), Sun Xiang (PSV), Dong Fangzhuo (Man Utd) and captain, Zheng Zhi (ex-Charlton). The first dividends of this broadening of horizons was seen in the first ever World Cup qualification in 2002. Subsequent failure to make it to Germany in 2006, saw the appointment of current coach, Zhu Guanghu, who led them to their first ever title, the East Asian Cup. Zhu has however, drawn criticism from negative tactics, and will probably be the most scrutinised coach at the 2007 AFC Asian Cup.
Experienced Iranians a Threat to All
The Iranian team, or Team Melli as they are known by their followers, has the highest FIFA ranking (41) of any team in the 2007 AFC Asia Cup. Having qualified for three World Cups, including in 2006, and won this competition three times from 1968-76, Iran has excellent recent and historical pedigree. An indication of the expectations of the Iranian Football Federation was given when Branko Ivankovic was sacked as manager despite leading Iran to the World Cup in Germany, after they failed to progress from the group stages.
Brankovic was succeeded by Amir Ghalenoei, an Iranian born coach charged with the task of adding a fourth Asian Cup title after a 30 year wait. Ghalenoei may lack international expertise but he led his side to top qualifying group B ahead of South Korea, helped by some well-placed stars. Captain, Mehdi Mahdavikia, and the ‘Asian Maradona’ Ali Karimi are both closing in on 100 caps, having gained huge experience in the Bundesliga, providing a formidable midfield alongside Andranik Teymourian (Bolton Wanderers) and Javad Nekounam (Osasuna). Up front Hannover 96 striker, Vahid Hashemian provides the main strike threat for a side that is brimming with potential, but sometimes lacks unity.
Little Expected from Declining Malaysians
Having only ever qualified for two AFC Asian Cups exiting in the first round on both occasions – it is a boon for Malaysia that host status confers automatic entry into the final event. The side have the lowest rank in the tournament at 157 (Jan 07) which caused such a stir in Malaysia that it became a parliamentary issue. Football has suffered domestically at the expense of interest in European leagues, and the profile of this competition was threatened by a planned Manchester United exhibition match, which after much wrangling was subsequently cancelled.
Several foreign coaches have tried and failed to raise the standard of football, and the current incumbent is Norizan Bakar, a Malay. He did lead the side to the semi-finals of 2007 ASEAN Championships, which provides some encouragement, but his side is totally lacking in experience and confidence. During qualification for the 2004 AFC Asian Cup, Malaysia ruined an excellent chance to qualify by losing 5-0 at home to Iraq and 2-1 to minnows Myanmar, illustrating an inability to play under the pressure of expectation which doesn’t augur well for their position as hosts.
Uzbekistan -- Potential Dark Horses
The national team of Uzbekistan may have only played its first game as recently as 1992, but the ex-Soviet State has made rapid improvement. Currently positioned a very respectable 58 on FIFA World Rankings, the Central Asian side benefited from a relatively weak qualifying group to progress behind the well-regarded Qatar who they actually beat in Tashkent. The side’s progress can be seen in its Asian Cup record, qualifying in each of the tournaments since break away from the USSR, the Uzbeks recorded their best result in 2004 only missing out on a semi-final place on penalties against Bahrain.
Maksim Shatskikh is Uzbekistan’s most important player. The Dynamo Kiev striker has twice topped the scoring charts in the Ukrainian Premier League, and will lead the line when Rauf Inileev’s side open their campaign against Iran on July 11th. The Uzbekistan squad is comprised in equal parts by domestically based players, and those that play their trade in Russia. They may not have possess any household names, but should not be underestimated.