The Philippines finds itself in a tough bind in its maiden AFC Asian Cup appearance. The three other countries the Azkals are bunched with in Group C are ranked higher — Korea is ranked 53rd in the world, China 76th and the Kyrgyz Republic 91st. The Philippines is currently at 116.
The Filipinos will no doubt build on a good performance in last year’s AFF Suzuki Cup where they returned to the semi-finals after missing out the last time. But they will have their hands full.
Korea is one of the favorites (along with Australia and Japan) to win the 2019 Asian Cup. Under former Portugal national Paulo Bento, who played in the World Cup and the European Championships, his squad finished undefeated in the qualifiers, 8-0, while not conceding a single goal. Japan matched their neighbors’ undefeated record as well as scoring 27 goals while keeping eight clean sheets. Reigning Asian Cup champions Australia suffered a shock 2-1 loss to Kyrgyzstan but still qualified outright as they topped Group A with a 7-1 record.
Korean fans are high on the Taeguk Warriors utilizing Bento’s tactics (4-2-3-1), where his team builds up from the back then attacks with speed and aggressiveness. Bento famously also managed Portugal and Cristiano Ronaldo to the semifinals of the 2012 Euros but bowed out of the group stages of the 2014 World Cup.
Managing Korea, Bento at first utilized team captain Son Heung-Min, who plays for Tottenham in the English Premier League like he did with Ronaldo — a target man up front. But in recent qualifying matches, Bento lined up other players and not his Premier League veterans to see what they could do. And Bento does have quite a few players he can ask to carry this team.
The Taeguk Warriors are flush with players who are appearing in top flights leagues around the world. Son Heung-Min, a regular fixture for manager Mauricio Pochettino, has scored 12 goals in all competition for Spurs (including eight in the Premier League).
Ki Sung-Yeung is with Newcastle United, where he has made 12 first team appearances this season for manager Rafa Benitez.
Korea also has several German Bundesliga players in Ji Dong-Won and Koo Ja-Cheol who both suit up for FC Augsburg as of this writing; Midfielder Hwang Hee-Chan plays for Hamburger SV. They also have two second division players in Lee Jae-Sung (Holstein Kiel) and Lee Chung-Yong (VfL Bochum). And they have seven more players in top flight divisions outside their native Korea.
The Koreans have a global superstar in Son Heung-Min, and they know they have a good team and are riding some good vibes heading into the Asian Cup.
This is a go-for-broke campaign for China. They have boldly announced that winning the FIFA World Cup is in their grand plan, and it seems they want to fast-track the process when they pulled their youthful players from their domestic league throwing it in turmoil.
Yet, it is an experienced and veteran team that manager Marcello Lippi brings to the Asian Cup.
China qualified with a 5-2-1 record behind Group B winner Qatar (7-0-1). In the process, they inflicted upon Qatar their lone loss, 2-0. They can also draw on their 1-0 win over South Korea in the 2018 World Cup qualifiers.
The story of this Chinese team has been maddening for their fans. They would pick up a huge win, but would follow it up with a befuddling loss or draw, such as the recent scoreless affair with India.
Lippi, who managed Italy to the 2006 World Cup and is the only coach to have won the UEFA Champions League and AFC Champions Cup, primarily sets his team up in a 4-4-2 formation. They deviate from time to time depending on who they play to a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-3-3.
One can infer that Lippi, true to Italian football, plays a pragmatic game. And in Yu Yang and Zhang Lingpeng, he has two center backs to repel attacks (with capable help from Xiaoting Feng). He can also count on double pivot Zheng Zhi to break up trouble and launch the counter attack.
But they like to run up their attacks from the wings rather than the center to take advantage of their high scoring winger, Wu Lei.
This is the last hurrah for this batch of veterans who are dark horses.
The Philippines isn’t the only country making its debut in Asian Cup competition. Kyrgyzstan is like a David in this Goliath-like tournament. They finished with a 4-2-2 record in the second round qualifications, then 4-1-1 in the qualification tiebreakers.
In the second round, they were bullish, losing by one goal to Australia. They defeated and also drew matches Jordan and Tajikistan. They scored 10 goals and surrendered eight.
In the tiebreakers, they scored 14 goals, but conceded eight, suggesting a leaky defense. And yet, such is the tenacious style that Russian head coach Aleksandr Krestinin has brought to this squad.
They will need all that tenacity and more in a tough group. Kyrgyzstan is led by Anton Zemlianukhin who scored 10 goals while backed up by Vitalij Lux’s four goals (several other players added a goal each to the overall effort).
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