The Asian Cup enters the business end when the last-16 round kicks off on Sunday, with some shock results in the group stages leaving a few of the continent’s heavyweights facing an uphill task if they are to make it all the way to the final.
Juergen Klinsmann’s South Korea may have avoided a last-16 clash with Japan but they have it all to do when they take on Roberto Mancini’s Saudi Arabia, with the winner of that game potentially facing Australia in the quarter-finals.
Klinsmann could only smile from the dugout when Malaysia scored an equaliser in the 15th minute of stoppage time to push South Korea down to second in the group, although he denied that was part of the plan to avoid Japan in the next round.
“The knockout stage is different from the group stage. Every team is difficult to play,” Klinsmann said.
“So no matter who you meet in the round of 16, if you want to win this tournament, you’ve got to beat everybody. It’s as simple as that.
“We’ve got to have fun, and Saudi Arabia is our next opponent so it will be a battle, but I don’t think there’s an easy team in this tournament.”
Saudi Arabia guaranteed themselves qualification before their third group game but coach Mancini had come under scrutiny for his team selection, and the Italian saw his players score only four goals from 57 attempts in the group stage.
“We had a lot of chances which we couldn’t take, but what is important to me is the performance. Our motto is to always play well and try to win,” said Mancini, who guided Italy to European championship glory in 2021.
“This is football… but football is to score. In the last two games we had many chances, but I hope we are saving those goals for the next game.”
Japan are the number one ranked team in Asia but qualified in second place after they were stunned by Iraq, while coach Hajime Moriyasu said there is plenty of room for improvement having failed to keep a clean sheet in all three games.
“Even though we won the game (against Indonesia) there are many aspects we can improve on, defensively and offensively,” he said.
“Buildup play from the back could have been better. We could have created more varieties of attack.”
Bahrain coach Juan Antonio Pizzi will be seeking personal redemption when his side take on Japan, after he led Saudi Arabia to a loss against the Japanese at the same stage in 2019.
The Spaniard was all praise for the level of the Japanese players, however, many of whom play in Europe’s top leagues.
“They have high individual skills and potential but we have high confidence in our players, their focus and their effort,” Pizzi said after Bahrain topped their group ahead of South Korea and Jordan.
“The Japan team is excellent and has experienced players who play in European leagues, but we’re optimistic about our group. We have high morale in our team.”
Iran were one of three teams to claim maximum points from the group stage, along with Qatar and Iraq, but coach Amir Ghalenoei thinks his players can raise the bar in the knockout stage.
“One of our biggest problems is ourselves. We are a very good team tactically and technically and if we can have a very good game every time, then we can go far,” said Ghalenoei, whose side face Syria.
“How many chances (we) created and how many chances the opponents created — by these two measures we’ve done a good job in the group stage. If our players can show their real quality in the knockout stage, we can be very dangerous.”