Aussies look to make amends; India, Bahrain face challengeDOHA, Qatar - A formidable Australia brings a powerful squad led by Everton’s Tim Cahill to the Asian Cup as the team looks to make amends for their disappointing tournament debut four years ago.
After switching from Oceania to the Asian Football Confederation, the Socceroos approached their first Asian Cup in 2007 confident of winning but learned some harsh realities about playing in the region. They struggled with the heat and humidity in Thailand and Vietnam and crashed out in the quarterfinals to Japan.
Four years on, they are less complacent and more conditioned to Asian football. The milder winter conditions in Qatar should suit them better and German coach Holger Osieck has high hopes.
“I have the confidence that this team is pretty strong and they are ready to really produce something,” he said when naming his squad. “Of course we are going there to have the best possible success.”
They are in a tough Group C alongside fellow regional heavyweights South Korea, as well as Bahrain and minnows India. Only the top two progress to the knockout rounds. Key players from the 2007 squad - Cahill, Harry Kewell, Lucas Neill, Mark Schwarzer and Brett Emerton - remain the core of the team. They are, however, all older than 30 and the Qatar tournament is likely to be their Asian Cup swan song.
Fulham goalkeeper Schwarzer, now 38, is taking nothing for granted, saying the last campaign showed Australia’s status counted for little on the pitch.
“You can talk as much as you want and be as highly ranked as you want but that does not guarantee you anything,” he said. “You have to put the performances on the pitch, and the last time our performances did not warrant us winning the tournament. Hopefully this time we can produce the performances ... and win the tournament.”
Joining the big-name stars is Asian Player of the Year Sasa Ognenovski who made his debut for Australia in a recent friendly against Egypt and led South Korean club Seongnam Ilhwa to the AFC Champions League title this season.
The underdogs of the group, India and Bahrain, are projected to have little chance of advancing out of the group. Competing in their third consecutive Asian Cup, Bahrain failed to get into the knockout rounds at the last Asian Cup in 2007 and could face a similar fate in Doha.
Avoiding last place in Group C must be their priority as they come into the tournament riding a poor run. Their outcome is in the hands of former international Salman Sharida, who recently took over when Austrian Josef Hickersberger quit to return to his previous club Al Wahda of the United Arab Emirates.
With goals a priority, Bahrain will be relying heavily on dangerous striker Ismaeel Abdullateef and fellow forward Jaycee Johnafter, who was allowed to play by his Turkish club Eskisehirspor - they refused to do so for the Gulf Cup.
Sharida will also pin his hopes on his overseas players who are mostly based in Qatar, the U.A.E. and Saudi Arabia. They are Faouzi Aaish and Abdulla Al Marzooqi (Al Silia, Qatar), Mohammed Hussain (Um Salal, Qatar) and Hussain Baba (Al Wehda, Saudi Arabia). Other notable members of the squad include midfielder Abdulla Baba Fatadi, who also boasts European experience, as well as captain Salman Isa.
It has taken India 27 years to qualify for its third Asian Cup and few are expecting any fireworks from a massive country that has never realized its footballing potential.
India is in Qatar courtesy of winning the eight-nation AFC Challenge Cup as hosts in 2008 - a tournament of lower-tier Asian teams. It will be their first outing at the Asian Cup since 1984 when they failed to make any impact, in contrast to their maiden appearance in 1964 when they finished second.
Bob Houghton, who has been in charge of India since 2006, has been struggling with a spate of injuries to key players, including captain and striker Baichung Bhutia, although he has been named to their squad.
The 1950s and ’60s were India’s golden era, with the national team winning the Asian Games gold medals in 1951 and 1962 while becoming the first Asian nation to make it to the Olympics semifinals in Melbourne in 1956.