Korea, Japan, Australia aiming to improve at Asian Cup
By JOHN DUERDEN
ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates (AP) South Korea, Australia and Japan have all made it through to the quarterfinals of the Asian Cup knowing there is much room for improvement as the continental tournament enters its finals stages.
Even with the arrival of Son Heung-min from Tottenham, Korea struggled to get past Bahrain, ranked 60 places lower by FIFA at 113, in Tuesday's second round game in Dubai. It needed an extra-time goal from Kim Jin-su to settle the encounter and book a quarterfinal with Qatar.
"It was a tough game."Son told reporters. "It's all about attitude as well, and I'm a bit unhappy with our performance. I think we're better than that."
Australia, champion after beating Korea in the 2015 final, needed a penalty shootout to get past Uzbekistan after 120 minutes of action ended goalless.
Japan was also below its best in eliminating Saudi Arabia 1-0 leaving Iran and Qatar as the best performers so far.
The quarterfinals take place on Thursday and Friday with the final held in Abu Dhabi on Feb.1.
Iran vs China
One of two big-name coaches will likely finish their current job after Thursday's showdown in Abu Dhabi. Carlos Queiroz has been in charge of Iran since 2011 and has led the team to become the highest-ranked in Asia.
The contract of the former Real Madrid coach ends after the tournament and the 65 year-old has been widely linked with the vacant Colombia job.
Iran, the most consistent of the continental powerhouses so far, is expected to record its fifth straight victory in the Asian Cup against a Chinese team that has yet to impress.
Marcello Lippi will step down as China boss when the team is eliminated. The 2006 World Cup winning coach has struggled at times but victory over Iran would be the Italian's best result in his two years in charge.
Japan vs Vietnam
A new-look Japan, searching for a fifth title, has won all four games so far. A second round 1-0 win over Saudi Arabia came as a result of a solid defensive performance from the team which has fewer big stars such as Keisuke Honda, Shinji Kagawa and Shinji Okazaki than in the past.
Japan, which reached the last 16 of the 2018 World Cup, has yet to find its fluency in attack under coach Hajime Moriyasu but will still be expected to win against Vietnam in Dubai on Thursday.
The Southeast Asian outsider is riding a wave led by South Korean coach Park Hang-seo. The penalty shootout win over Jordan in the previous round provoked street parties in the country, to rival those that greeted the win in Southeast Asia's regional championship in December.
That would be nothing compared to the celebrations that would ensue should a young and talented Vietnam team, which has recovered well after losing its first two group games, defeat Japan.
Australia vs United Arab Emirates
Australia, champion in 2015, defeated Uzbekistan courtesy of a penalty shootout but will be without the suspended influential playmaker Tom Rogic against the host in Al Ain on Friday.
The Socceroos bounced back after an opening game defeat against Jordan but has yet to show the form of title-winner and has especially struggled against teams that have sat deep.
United Arab Emirates may be playing on home soil but has also yet to find its form in the tournament.
A lack of goals was a concern for Italian coach Alberto Zaccheroni before the competition started. Those worries have eased somewhat after the 3-2 win over Kyrgyzstan in the second round but the backline looked vulnerable with the woodwork denying the Central Asians on three occasions.
South Korea vs Qatar
Another fancied team that has yet to move into top gear despite four wins out of four, South Korea had to work hard to get past Bahrain 2-1 after extra-time on Tuesday.
The Taeguk Warriors, without injured captain and Newcastle United midfielder Ki Sung-yueng who has returned to England, have struggled to either create or convert chances.
Son Heung-min was peripheral and the Tottenham star has yet to score in the tournament. He should enjoy more space against Qatar on in Abu Dhabi on Friday.
Along with Iran, Qatar has been the most impressive team in the tournament so far, winning all four games without conceding a goal. In Almoez Ali, the 2022 World Cup host also has the top scorer of the tournament so far with seven goals.
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Updated January 23, 2019