In­jury-hit Aussies face up­hill bat­tle to re­tain ti­tle

China Daily - - SPORTS - By XIN­HUA

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.

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