Socceroos proving to be among Asian Cup contenders
AUSTRALIA may have come in to the Asian Cup with the 10th-highest ranking of the 16 teams, but if the first round of matches showed us anything, it was the Socceroos are one of just four teams with a genuine chance of winning the tournament.
With each team having had an opportunity to display its credentials, the competition appears to have been split into three groups.
The top contenders: Japan, Australia, South Korea, Iran
The outside chances: China, Uzbekistan, UAE, Iraq, Saudi Arabia
The also-rans: Jordan, Oman, Qatar, Bahrain, North Korea, Kuwait, Palestine.
The latest odds (prior to last night's two matches to kick off round two) to win the tournament supported that split.
Tattsbet was quoting Japan as the $2.80 favourite to claim its fifth Asian Cup, ahead of the Socceroos ($3.50), South Korea ($5.50) and Iran ($6).
China and Uzbekistan were each at $19 in the group of outside chances, with the UAE ($21), Iraq ($26) and Saudi Arabia ($51) given only a slight hope after controversial striker Nasser Al-Shamrani was ruled out of the tournament with an abdominal injury on the eve of his team's first-up 1-0 loss to China.
The also-rans were largely outclassed in their first-round assignments, with teams such as Kuwait, Qatar, North Korea and Palestine, playing in the tournament for the first time, showing they were a long way off the best teams in the region.
The problem for the Socceroos, regardless of last night's result against Oman, is the fact it has drawn alongside South Korea in Group A, with the winner of Saturday night's match between the two teams in Brisbane likely to determine the winner of the group.
The team that does finish on top will take on the No.2 team from Group B, and will avoid a semi-final clash against Japan.
Australia's hopes on that front received a major boost yesterday with news South Korean midfielder Lee Chung-yong could miss the rest of the tournament after scans revealed a hairline fracture of his right leg. The Bolton Wanderers midfielder was stretchered off in the 78th minute of the 1-0 win against Oman in Canberra on Saturday night.
If the Socceroos did finish on top of Group A, it would be on track for a semi-final against Iran, which went some way to justifying its ranking as the No.1 team in Asia by downing Bahrain 2-0 in Melbourne on Sunday.
Sharpshooters Ashkan Dejagah, Ehsan Hajsafi and Masoud Shojaei all showed their class, with Hajsafi unleashing an early contender for goal of the tournament to put his side ahead late in the first half.
Japan still looms as the team to beat, however, with all its big names impressing in the 4-0 win against Palestine. Keisuke Honda, who scored his team's third goal, echoed the thoughts of the head coaches from Iran and Oman, saying his biggest concern was the standard of officiating.
"I don't want to complain, but something has to be done about the level of refereeing here," Honda said.