Injury-hit Aussies face uphill battle to retain title
A raft of injuries and retirements look to have severely dented Australia’s hopes of retaining the Asian Cup, with the continent’s traditional powerhouses poised to pounce.
Having only joined the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) in 2006, the Socceroos lifted their first Asian Cup on home soil four years ago, defeating South Korea 2-1 after extra time in the final.
Australia, though, is not fancied to repeat the feat in the United Arab Emirates at a tournament expanded from 16 to 24 teams.
The Aussies have been dealt major blows through knee injuries to three key players — playmaker Aaron Mooy of English Premier League side Huddersfield Town, winger Martin Boyle of Scottish top-flighters Hibernian, and rising midfield star Daniel Arzani, who plays for Scottish champion Celtic on loan from Manchester City.
Hertha Berlin forward Mathew Leckie is doubtful with a hamstring problem while the retirements of all-time leading scorer Tim Cahill and long-serving captain Mile Jedinak after last year’s World Cup have left coach Graham Arnold desperately short of quality.
Despite the presence of eight strikers in his squad, Arnold has struggled to find a replacement for former Everton and Shanghai Shenhua hotshot Cahill, who netted 50 times in 108 appearances for his country.
Of the other title contenders, Japan is perhaps best equipped to wrest the title away from the Aussies.
Since the retirements of stalwarts Keisuke Honda, Makoto Hasebe and Gotoku Sakai after the World Cup finals, where Japan reached the last 16, coach Hajime Moriyasu has embarked on a bold rebuilding project that values form over reputation.
He surprisingly omitted Leicester City forward Shinji Okazaki and Borussia Dortmund playmaker Shinji Kagawa from his 23-man squad, with both players struggling for first-team action at their clubs of late.
Moriyasu, though, still has plenty of European-caliber players at his disposal, including Southampton centerback Maya Yoshida, Red Bull Salzburg midfielder Takumi Minamino and Newcastle United striker Yoshinori Muto.
“We have selected many inexperienced players this time. We want to build a new national side and fight for the title. I picked the team with this in mind,” Moriyasu said.
Iran, Asia’s top-rated team at 29th in the FIFA rankings, has failed to make it beyond the quarterfinals at the past three Asian Cups.
However, with quality in every position on the field, Team Melli, managed by Portuguese former Manchester United coach Carlos Queiroz, is hopeful of ending its 43-year trophy drought.
“Iran can make history at the Asian Cup by taking advantage of one of the best generations of players we have ever had. Four years ago, we were knocked out of the Asian Cup in a penalty shootout against Iraq, but this time we are determined to win the title,” Iran winger Alireza Jahanbakhsh said.
The 24-year-old Sardar Azmoun, who plays for Rubin Kazan in Russia and is known as Iran’s Messi, ended his shock international retirement last summer and will spearhead the Gulf nation’s challenge in the UAE.