Chris O (follow on Twitter: @COakleyFtbl)
Sat 21 July 2007

Asian Cup - The story so far...

While the gaze of many a football fan was fixed on the Copa America, the 2007 Asian Cup quietly got underway in not one host country but four - Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam. Where UEFA feels it would be impractical for more than two host countries to stage a large tournament, the AFC obviously has no such qualms.

This is the fourteenth Asian Cup to take place since its inauguration back in 1956 when Hong Kong were given the honour of beginning the four-yearly cycle. At the time, only twelve countries were affiliated to the AFC but seven took part in that first competition which was won by the Korean Republic. Four years later, the Korean Republic hosted the tournament themselves and promptly won it again.

Having been runners-up in the first two tournaments, Israel finally prevailed in 1964, but the Asian Cup was hereafter to feature a series of dominant periods for some of the region's heavyweights.

Iran won the next three tournaments from 1968 to 1976 and after Kuwait brought that run to an end in 1980, Saudi Arabia took over as the team to beat, winning in 1984, 1988 and 1996. Japan stopped a potential four-in-a-row sequence by snatching the trophy in 1992 on home soil and picked up where they left off by winning it again in 2000 and 2004.

All of which brings us up to the present day and since the last tournament in China, the Asian Cup has really meant business. Japan are still ruling the roost, new teams like Uzbekistan and Australia are trying to upset the equilibrium while long-dormant big-wigs like Iran and the Korean Republic continue in their fight to be Asia's number 1 again.

So how has the 2007 tournament started so far? Let's find out...

First Round

Group A (Australia / Iraq / Oman / Thailand)
All eyes were on Australia who had jumped ship to be a part of the AFC after years of affiliation with the ceania Football Confederation. Things didn't start well for them though - only an injury time equaliser from Tim Cahill was good enough to earn them a 1-1 draw with Oman. Come the second match, things got even worse when a strong Iraq side turned over the Socceroos 3-1.

By this stage, Australia were bottom of the group with no points while co-hosts Thailand had picked up four, as had Iraq. Going into the last round of matches, Australia knew that to finish second in the group and qualify for the quarter finals they'd have to beat Thailand (playing in front of a home crowd) by four clear goals, preferably without conceding any. Oh, and hope that Iraq would beat Oman in the other game going on at the same time.

To their credit, they did exactly that. Aussie coach Graham Arnold made four changes to the side that lost to Iraq, including the demotion of Harry Kewell to the bench. It paid off as Mark Viduka scored two after Michael Beauchamp got the opener in the 21st minute and Harry Kewell came on to score a 90th minute clincher.

That 4-0 win meant heartbreak for Thailand as they finished third in the group on goal difference behind Australia in second and Iraq, a point ahead of them at the top. Oman's goalless draw with Iraq in front of a crowd of just 500 was not enough to keep them off the foot of the group table.

Highlights of Thailand v Australia

Group B (Japan / Qatar / United Arab Emirates / Vietnam)
Hot favourites to win this group were Japan although at 36 their current FIFA ranking is just six places better than the UAE. As it was, Japan didn't disappoint despite dropping two points against Qatar in their first game after Sebastian Quintana equalised from a free kick two minutes from the end.

That minor blip out of the way, Japan breezed past the UAE with a 3-1 win before going on to sweep aside Vietnam 4-1. Luckily for the co-hosts, their hard work had already been done thanks to a 2-0 opening victory against the United Arab Emirates and a 1-1 draw against Qatar. All they had to hope for was that the UAE would beat Qatar in their last game, and they duly did.

So after all that, Japan finished top of Group B with five points and going through to the next round were Vietnam on four. The United Arab Emirates, despite that win in their last game, went home with just three points and Qatar's two draws left them bottom on two.

Group C (China / Iran / Malaysia / Uzbekistan)
Out of all the four co-hosts, Malaysia sadly did the worst although they did have a tough group to qualify from. Recent World Cup competitors China and Iran were formidable opponents as well as the former Soviet state of Uzbekistan, and the scorelines were to prove less than flattering.

After an initial 5-1 thrashing at the hands of the Chinese, Malaysia stumbled onto a 5-0 thrashing against Uzbekistan before suffering a smaller deficit in a 2-0 defeat to Iran. The Iranians needed a high-scoring win to make certain of a place in the next round as China also had four points going into the last game with Uzbekistan on three. In the end, it was inconsequential as the Uzbeks pull off a big shock by beating China 3-0. It meant China were out of the competition having accumulated four points - two less than Uzbekistan and three less than Iran who topped the group.

Uzbekistan pull off a shock win against China

Group D (Bahrain / Indonesia / Korea Republic / Saudi Arabia)
Group D was another with two favourites to make it through to the quarter finals and once again it was they that played true to form.

The two teams in question, Korea Republic and Saudi Arabia, met in the second game of the group in Jakarta which proved eventful not so much because of the action which lead to the 1-1 scoreline, but more for the floodlight failure which occurred five minutes from time that lasted for nearly half an hour.

Having picked up a point each, it was then just a matter of beating their weaker opponents in the remaining games. Korea, however, almost slipped up as in their next game Bahrain were the victors by two goals to one and it was only a narrow 1-0 win over Indonesia that saw them through. Saudi Arabia were altogether more competent in their games, Beating Indonesia 2-1 (admittedly thanks to a last minute winner from Al-Harthi) and Bahrain 4-0.

So Saudi Arabia finished top of the group with seven points from a possible nine and Korea Republic were second with only four. Despite attendances of 87,000 in two of their games, Indonesia missed out on a quarter final place by just one point, as did Bahrain who finished fourth.

Quarter Finals
And so to the quarter finals which began today. The first match took place in Bangkok and in it Iraq beat the only remaining co-host, Vietnam, 2-0. It means Iraq reach the Asian Cup semi-finals for the first time since 1976, and on Wednesday they'll be playing the winner of tomorrow's game between Iran and the Korean Republic.

Today's other quarter final was between Japan and Australia in Hanoi. Australia counted themselves lucky to even be there after a somewhat disastrous first round, but they dug deep to frustrate the Japanese.

John Aloisi had given Australia the lead after 70 minutes but Japan came straight back two minutes later with an equaliser from Naohiro Takahara. Vince Grella was then sent off shortly after for elbowing Takahara when both jumped up for a header, but despite the numerical advantage, Japan couldn't find a winning goal - even in thirty minutes of extra time.

The game went to a penalty shoot-out and the writing was on the wall for the Australians right from the start when Premier League players Lucas Neill and Harry Kewell missed the first two for the Socceroos. Japan found themselves 3-1 up and apparently coasting when Takahara smashed Japan's fourth over the bar, allowing Australia to pull one back.

At 3-2, Yuji Nakazawa had the unenviable job of taking Japan's last penalty which had to go in for them to win the match, and so it did. Japan therefore remain on course to win their third successive Asian Cup, but before that, they must play the winner of tomorrow's second quarter-final - the last of the four - between Saudi Arabia and Uzbekistan on Wednesday.

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