AFC Asian Cup 2019 Group E: The Green Falcons... how far can they fly?

The political ban on Qatar — the host of the 2022 FIFA World Cup — led by Saudi Arabia may cast its shadow on the Asian Cup matches.

Juan Antonio Pizzi, the head coach of Saudi Arabia, speaks to his wards at the 2018 FIFA World Cup. Ranked 69 by FIFA, the team is the strongest on paper in its group in the Asian Cup.   -  Getty Images GETTY IMAGES

The regional powerhouse Saudi Arabia is expected to dominate Group E. Currently 69 in the FIFA rankings, the team is one of the most successful ones in the Asian Cup, winning the title thrice and finishing the runner-up as many times. Interestingly, Saudi Arabia won the last of its three titles when UAE hosted the tournament in 1996. The Green Falcons would be looking to repeat history even as they are training under manager Juan Antonio Pizzi.

In the 2018 FIFA World Cup, the Saudis started with a 5-0 loss to host Russia and then improved a lot to lose narrowly (1-0) to Uruguay before defeating Egypt 2-1. Since then, Saudi Arabia has played five friendlies, beating Yemen 1-0 and settling for draws with Bolivia (2-2), Iraq (1-1) and Jordan (1-1). It also lost to Brazil (2-0).

The group pits political rivals Saudi Arabia and Qatar against each other. The political ban on Qatar — the host of the 2022 FIFA World Cup — led by Saudi Arabia may cast its shadow on the Asian Cup matches. However, on form and status the Saudis are much more potent as a football team, being 24 slots above Qatar (placed 93) in the latest FIFA rankings.

Qatar secured its Asian Cup qualification topping Group C of the FIFA World Cup qualifiers winning seven of its eight matches. Its only loss came in an ‘away’ outing against China. Qatar also enjoyed good form in the build-up to the Asian Cup, defeating China, Palestine, Ecuador and Switzerland in international friendlies. It played a draw with Finland, while its only loss came against Uzbekistan.

Felix Sanchez has been involved with Qatar football since a long time.   -  Reuters

 

Coached by former Barcelona youth team coach, Felix Sanchez, Qatar is looking to spring a few surprises in the Asian Cup. The Spaniard, who has a long association with Qatari football, coaching the junior and youth teams since 2006, is cautiously optimistic about his side which has to contend with two higher ranked regional opponents like Saudi Arabia (69) and Lebanon (81).

Lebanon is a side primarily formed with foreign-based players. This will be Lebanon’s second appearance in the continental showpiece, with its previous appearance being the tournament which it hosted in 2000. The newly formed Lebanese team is built on the Belgium model which is about inviting the expatriates playing in Europe and America to return to their native land to strengthen the side. This method has seen the steady rise of Lebanon, which took the second spot behind formidable South Korea in the second round and made it to the Asian Cup with an unbeaten record in the third round. Coached by Montenegrin Miodrag Radulovic, Lebanon will be looking to go beyond the group stage in the continental contest.

North Korea or DPR Korea qualified for the 2010 FIFA World Cup after finishing in second place ahead of Saudi Arabia and Iran in Group B of Asian qualifying. It had a forgettable outing at the World Cup but has since then been gradually improving its performance. In recent outings it has drawn against China, while beating Eastern Asian neighbours like Chinese Taipei and Mongolia. North Korea appointed the 35-year-old Kim Yong-Jun as the head coach ahead of the Asian Cup, apparently looking for fresh ideas.

Group E Fixtures

January 8: Saudi Arabia vs North Korea, Qatar vs Lebanon

January 12: North Korea vs Qatar

January 13: Lebanon vs Saudi Arabia

January 16: Saudi Arabia vs Qatar, Lebanon vs North Korea