Steady. Disciplined. Controlled. They’re the adjectives you might hear describe Japan’s Friday win over Iraq, a 1-0 victory that pushed the defending champions into the second round. Perfect through two games, Japan needs only a draw in its Sunday face-off with Jordan to win the group. Given Ray Wilkins’ team fell in its opening game loss to Iraq, the Samurai Blue are strong favorites to finish the group with nine points.
For any team looking to defend it’s crown, however, there’s always a bigger picture. Japan is the class of the 2015 Asian Cup’s Group D, but we knew that before the tournament’s opening kickoff. How has Javier Aguirre’s team compared to the broader, tournament-wide competition — the teams that are vying for its thrown?
Coming into the day, a hypothetical power ranking of the tournament’s favorites might have had the holders in first place. After Japan needed a goal from the spot to get past Iraq, however, it’s difficult not to see Australia’s two four-goal performances and wonder if the hosts, derided for having fallen to 100 in FIFA’s rankings, may be the team to beat.
Move to Group C, and Iran’s defense has been as advertised (very good), albeit against modest opposition. Beyond that, you get teams like the United Arab Emirates, South Korea, and China — all with perfect records, albeit without two convincing performances.
Japan appears better than that final group, and with Iran excelling in only one phase of the game, it’s difficult to see Carlos Queiroz’s team as more than a dangerous, capable contender. But while Japan may have been seen as the slight favorite coming into Australia 2015, it’s the hosts that have most impressive side through 180 minutes. That Japan couldn’t muster an open play goal against Iraq may have been an uncharacteristic performance, but it’s still a bigger hiccup than we’ve seen from the Socceroos.
Elsewhere, we had our first hat trick of the tournament, though Jordan’s Hamza Al Daradreh’s goals in the 35th, 45th, 75th and 80th minutes did that benchmark one better. Now the tournament’s leading scorer, Al Daradreh led his team to a 5-1 mini-derby win of Palestine.
The route, which played out as expected, keeps Jordan’s hopes of advancing alive, though to do so, it will likely need to beat Japan on Sunday. With Iraq likely to move to six points with its inevitable win over Palestine, a third-match draw will do Jordan no good.
Off the field
Even with Australia’s theorized dependence on Tim Cahill, captain Mile Jedinak may be the team’s best player, but the Crystal Palace midfielder was forced out of the hosts’ second group match with an ankle injury suffered against Kuwait. With a Group A-deciding match against South Korea on the horizon, Australia head coach Ange Postecoglou still isn’t sure if his midfield linchpin will be ready to go.
“We will pick a team that we think can win the game,” Postecoglou explained today. “Mile is keen to play, and he will be right for the quarterfinal.”
That quarterfinal will be against one of China, Uzbekistan, or Saudi Arabia, and while it would be a nice feather in the cap to win Group A, the benefits are few. It’s not like you’re playing to avoid Japan, though a win could dodge a meeting with the holders before the final.
Expect that to influence Uli Stielike’s preparations, too. The South Korea boss is already without star midfielder Lee Chong-yong, out for the tournament after suffering an injury on Saturday. Bayer Leverkusen star Son Heung-min missed the team’s second game after being taken to the hospital due to a sudden illness, while another seven South Korean players have reportedly been injured or missed training during the tournament.
Any showdown with Japan is still a week away, and it will be almost impossible to avoid another strong opponent (Iran, for example) in the other half of the draw. In the short-term, the benefits of rushing a Jedinak or Son back on the field are few. Unless coaches need a barometer of their teams’ potentials, it may be better to take a cautious approach.
Oh, as for the tournament’s biggest off-field storyline:
Nutmeg is taking it back. The dingo has been known as the baby-stealing dog for too long. Now, it will be known as the huggable, smart phone-using, surf board-riding soccer star of 2015’s first major tournament.
A South Korea win will send it through to the final eight as Group A’s winner, destined to face Group B’s runner up. Any point for Australia, however, will see the host nation advance with the honor, with the Koreans sent to Japan’s half of the bracket to face the winner of Group B.
Oman and Kuwait are going home, regardless.
Australia vs. South Korea – 3 p.m. Eastern, Brisbane Stadium
Oman vs. Kuwait – 3 p.m. Eastern, Newcastle Stadium
Where they stand
Shout out to Wikipedia, again.
Day 1: Host nations should always cruise
Day 2: Goalkeepers and weather the stars
Day 3: Did our first favorite step forward?
Day 4: The defending champions announce their arrival
Day 5: How can two perfect teams be headed in different directions?
Day 6: The tournament’s first upset puts China into the final eight
Day 7: Iran may be good and unwatchable
Day 8: The new Japan versus Australia (versus Iran) question