AFC Asian Cup 2011: Group C preview

Continental showpiece ... Asian football's top prize is up for grabs this month.

In the third instalment of his comprehensive guide, TWG's Scott McIntyre examines the four combatants in Group C, which includes the Socceroos, and predicts which two sides will progress to the next phase.

GROUP C - Australia, Bahrain, India, Korea Republic

On paper, this should be a race in two with Australia and Korea clearly the sides tipped to progress.

The Socceroos have one of the most-experienced sides at the tournament – in clear contrast with the Koreans, who have named a group in which more than half the squad is aged 24 or younger but the end result should be the same – a run in the latter stages of the competition.

Bahrain are capable of springing a surprise but after a series of problems on and off the field – a coach walking out a month before the event kicks-off, their captain and main midfielder being injured a week out and a match against a Togolese side that turned out not to actually represent Togo – it’s hard to see them repeating the heroics of 2004.

India, although a potential super-power of the region, is likely to find the going very tough indeed.

One hopes that the Socceroos will have more success in Qatar than whoever it was that won the competition to name the slogan that’s painted on the bus parading the team around the country.

Just how 'We’re the Thunder from Down Under’ – the name of a well-known all-male strip group in the US – slipped through the cracks is unknown – but at least the distance from hotel to stadium is not particularly great!

On a more serious note, after a disappointing first outing at the Asian Cup – both on and off the pitch – four years ago, all involved in Australian football will be looking for a sharper showing in Qatar.

Whereas perhaps the preparation wasn’t what it should have been in the heat and humidity of South-East Asia last time around, conditions will hold no problems for the Socceroos in the Middle East in January.

Moreover, after a home loss to Kuwait in Asian Cup qualifying and serious scares against Iraq, China and Bahrain in qualification for South Africa, no-one involved in the team could be accused of being unprepared any longer about the strength of Asian football.

Whilst hopefully a more humble public approach will be adopted in Qatar, Australia is more than capable of getting out of a group that appears to be a race in two between the Socceroos and Korea.

Several potential mouth-watering clashes could then develop in the knockout stages with a quarter-final appearance against either the side’s 1997 World Cup conqueror Iran or an Iraqi outfit who humbled Graham Arnold’s men in Thailand last time out, a firm possibility.

Both the FFA and new boss Holger Osieck have publicly declared the aim is to win the Asian Cup and that’s been evident by the squad chosen –one that’s heavy on experience.

Youngsters Matthew Spiranovic, Nathan Burns, Tommy Oar and Robbie Kruse are sure to satisfy those calling for a generational change but the fact remains that the Socceroos will have one of the oldest squads on show at Qatar – and therefore enter as one of the favourites to win the tournament.

Along with the Socceroos, Korea should progress with relatively few problems from what appears to be a straightforward group.

After reaching the Round of 16 in South Africa, the changes have been dramatic – with many of the names in many key positions probably unknown to most observers outside of Korea.

Former long-serving national midfielder and coach of K-League outfit Gyeongnam, Cho Kwang-rae was drafted in to lead the side in July and has basically taken a razor to the side- only ten members of the World Cup selection will travel to Qatar.

In have come a host of prodigious talents – including 21 year-old central midfielder Koo Ja-cheol who was a standout for his club side, Jeju, over the past K-League season.

His potential midfield sidekick will be of keen interest to Australian fans – with 21 year-old Ki Sung-yeung spending almost five years at school in Brisbane during which time he won the national Bill Turner Cup high-school competition.

Perhaps the FFA will be thinking what could have been if the now Celtic-based man stars against the Socceroos.

Whilst English-based midfielders Park Ji-sung and Lee Chung-yong are household names, perhaps most interest will be focussed on the most inexperienced collection of forwards at the tournament.

Yoo Byung-soo, Ji Dong-won and Kim Shin-wook, all hailing from the K-League, have less than ten international caps between them but Yoo in particular is widely touted as a star of the future.

Remarkably, it’s been now 51 years since Korea last won the Asian Cup – in fact they haven’t reached the final since 1988 when the event was also hosted by Qatar.

Expectations haven’t been overwhelming in Korea but I feel that with a young squad full of plenty of stars from one of Asia’s strongest leagues in tandem with a player who’s arguably achieved more than any other Asian star in European football, Korea have the right mix to go a long, long way in the finals with a third title well within their grasp.

Looking at outsiders and it’s immediately obvious that the golden age of Indian football came a long time ago - with the side winning Asian Games medals in 1951 and 1961 and becoming the first Asian nation to reach an Olympic semi-final at Melbourne in 1956 but there’s a sense that success will slowly return to the nation.

A professional league is now three years old, forward Sunil Chhetri has signed with a club in the MLS and money and interest is starting to focus on the sport in a notoriously rabid cricket-loving country.

That said, India’s entry to the Asian Cup was via the 'back-door’ method of winning the 2008 AFC Challenge Cup (a tournament for 'second-tier’ nations) and while players such as Chhetri and the veteran Baichung Bhutia (the first Indian to play professionally in England) may cause a few headaches the reality is India are probably out of their depth at this level.

In fact after lead-up matches over the past few months that has seen the UAE put five past them, Yemen rack up six and Kuwait complete a 9-1 thrashing the best case scenario appears to be avoiding a healthy pasting in their three group matches.

Dramas off the field, with team manager Pradeep Chowdhury walking out on the side a week before the tournament started haven’t helped either.

Although nothing is ever straightforward in Asian football it would be a major shock if it’s not Australia and South Korea that progress from the section.

SCOTT'S PICKS: Australia & Korea Republic to qualify

Source SBS