AFC Asian Cup 2019 Group F: Fifty per cent done!

Japan is way in front. Oman, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan have been left to vie for the second spot.

Yuya Osako (No. 15) of Japan celebrates scoring a goal, with skipper Maya Yoshida (No. 22) during an international friendly against Kyrgyzstan on November 20, 2018 in Toyota, Japan. With talismanic midfielder Keisuke Honda having retired from international football after the World Cup and Shinji Kagawa’s omission from the squad, Yoshida is leading a rather young side at the Asian Cup.   -  Getty Images

With Japan in the fray, half a prediction can easily be made about the outcome of Group F. Even Oman, the next highest ranked team in the group, may not be able to put up much of a resistance in the Samurai Blue’s path to the knockout stages and beyond. However, as the gap in quality closes among the lower-ranked sides and with the general unpredictability of the tournament, the group could witness a three-legged race as Oman, Uzbekistan and neighbour Turkmenistan vie for the second spot.

Japan and Uzbekistan made it to the Asian Cup after topping their groups in the second round of qualification. Oman and Turkmenistan, which were in the same group in the second round, had to go through a third round to qualify for the tournament, where they find themselves grouped together again.

Japan scraped through the World Cup group stages, after a drab 1-0 defeat against Poland which drew comparisons to the Disgrace of Gijon, and was the only AFC team to qualify for the knockout stages. Its run was halted by an inspired Belgium comeback in a thriller of a round-of-16 match, but the team and its fans, who built quite a reputation during the World Cup, have seemed to put those woes behind them. The Asian powerhouse has been unbeaten since the World Cup, posting wins in friendlies over Costa Rica and Uruguay, among others. Japan will try to carry this momentum into the Asian Cup as it looks to maintain its position as the tournament’s most successful team, having won it four times — 1992, 2000, 2004 and 2011.

Uzbekistan has suffered a big fall in rankings since the beginning of the year. In friendlies since March, it has managed to win only two matches — against North Korea and Qatar.

FC Rostov’s Eldor Shomurodov (yellow) is known to be prolific in front of goal and will be the key for Uzbekistan.   -  Getty Images

 

But punching a little above its weight seems to have been the preparation strategy for the Hector Cuper-led side. It has played and lost in friendlies against tougher opponents such as Uruguay, Iran, South Korea and Morocco.

Uzbekistan’s fixture against its neighbour Turkmenistan will draw a lot of attention, at least in Central Asia, as the two sides face off for only the ninth time officially. Turkmenistan, currently ranked 127 in the world, has won only one out of their eight meetings and the Uzbeks six. But Turkmenistan, which put up an impressive show in the qualifiers, may not be an easy opponent. The Omanis will vouch for it.

Oman and Turkmenistan had met twice in the second round of qualifying and picked up a win apiece.

Oman has been on a steady path of progress — since a major slump in 2015 — culminating in the Gulf Cup victory in January 2018, and establishing itself as one of the best teams in West Asia. It has, however, failed to fire in international friendlies this year, playing out goalless draws against Jordan, Ecuador and Lebanon, and grabbing only one win, against Bahrain.

Japan’s talismanic midfielder Keisuke Honda retired from international football after the World Cup and Shinji Kagawa’s omission from the squad has left a rather young side led by Maya Yoshida.

For Uzbekistan, Igor Sergeev and FC Rostov’s Eldor Shomurodov are known to be prolific in front of goal.

Oman goalkeeper Ali Al-Habsi will be a familiar face for English Premier League fans. The former Wigan Athletic and Bolton Wanderers goalkeeper will captain Oman.

Group F fixtures

January 9: Japan vs Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan vs Oman

January 13: Oman vs Japan, Turkmenistan vs Uzbekistan

January 17: Oman vs Turkmenistan, Japan vs Uzbekistan