ASIA’S premier international tournament is upon us. Mark O’Haire (@MarkOHaire) explores the best bets from Group B.
The only group without an odds-on favourite, Group B is wide open and not for the feint-hearted. But that gives us punters more room to manoeuvre and hopefully helps us find a juicy-priced winner to cheer on.
I’ve outlined my Outright selections here but below I’ll assess the chances and the best bets on offer for all four of the Group B teams.
Uzbekistan (15/8 Betfred)
Confidence is high in the Uzbekistan group. The 2011 semi-final appearance at the Asian Cup remains the watermark for the White Wolves and although that game ended in a 6-0 drubbing by Australia, the Central Asians would relish a chance to put things right against the Socceroos in their own backyard.
The Uzbeks arrive ranked 74th in the FIFA standings and rated as the fourth best nation on the continent. Coach Mirjalol Qosimov continues to mould a hard-working team that could be set to peak in Australia.
The White Wolves have made it out of their group in each of the past three editions of the tournament and have been hardened and fine-tuned by four December friendlies. But wins over fellow Asian Cup rivals Jordan and Palestine were followed by a draw and defeat to Iraq with Qosimov’s side failing to score.
Having missed out on automatic World Cup qualification by a single goal to South Korea, the Group B favourites are determined to make their mark this time. Led by hugely experienced pair Timur Kapadze and captain Server Djeparov in midfield, the Uzbeks strength is in the middle but their ageing squad may find it tough once they reach the knockout stages and a date with one of Group A's big-two.
Saudi Arabia (11/4 Betway)
The glory days are long gone for Saudi Arabia. Having qualified for four successive World Cups, the Green Falcons dismissed yet another coach after losing the final of the Gulf Cup on home soil to Qatar in November.
Cosmin Olaroiu has been handed the role of reinvigorating the side and stop their slide with West Asia rivals such as Iran, Qatar and UAE all rivalling the former dominant nation. The Romanian was appointed just three weeks before the start of the tournament. Perfect prep!
Expectations remain unreasonably high with the Saudi FA setting the semi-finals as the Greens goal. Historically strong in the event, Saudi Arabia have actually bowed out in the group phase in two of the last three events and arrive on the back of a three-match losing streak against South Korea, Bahrain and Qatar.
However, those with a glass half full will point towards their promising displays in the Gulf Cup, up until the final, as well as their sharp eye for a goal. Their last outing against South Korea is the only fixture the Green Falcons have failed to score in in their last 11 fixtures.
Asian Player of the Year Naseer Al-Shamrani will shoulder much of the responsibility in a squad hugely reliant on Saudi Arabia’s domestic giants Al-Hilal. But could their sloppy defensive record catch up with them? Three clean sheets in 13 suggests quite possibly.
Their showdown with China is likely to decide who joins Uzbekistan in the knockout rounds and Saudi supporters will point towards their record of two wins and a draw in three meetings with the Chinese since 2009.
China (3/1 Paddy Power)
China’s Super League has made more headlines than their national team in recent years but many in the country believe the Asian Cup could be the chance to announce itself as an emerging football power in the region.
Team Dragon are unbeaten in 10 games and that includes a win against Paraguay plus draws against Honduras and New Zealand. Hardly earthshattering but steady improvement for the side led by French coach Alain Perrin.
Going against the Chinese is the fact that all 10 of those matches took place on home soil and Perrin’s been unable to observe his side on foreign soil. But with continuity key amongst his selection of largely Guanzhou Evergrande players, the cohort should know their jobs inside out.
Having failed to progress from the group stages in their past two Asian Cup appearances, this could be the year for Team Dragon to show their mettle and book a place in the quarter-finals. Whilst their forward line can’t compete with that of Saudi Arabia, the Chinese make up for it with team unity and clarity under steady leadership.
North Korea (7/1 Paddy Power)
Youth football is flourishing in North Korea, apparently. The country of mystery and intrigue has seen more success than ever before on the field, albeit largely in youth tournaments. But nevertheless, medals have been earned and a bright future could be on the cards.
Whilst future Asian success might not be too far away, progress in January’s competition remains hard to second guess. Since competing at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, the Koreans have slid to 148 in the FIFA rankings.
However, Yun Jong-Su's men have strung together some promising form pre-tournament, going unbeaten in their East Asian Cup qualifiers in November to book their spot in the 2015 showpiece.
To complicate mattes, Yun was slapped with a 12-month touchline ban after publicly clashing with officials after their Asian Games final defeat to rivals South Korea, leaving assistant Jo Tong-Sop to step into the breach. Word on the street is, Yun will still have majority control with regards to preparation.
North Korea, as you’d probably expect, are a real unknown quantity. Having failed to beat any top opposition in recent years, it’s hard to make a case for them negotiating their way to the quarter-finals and a group stage exit looms.
Uzbekistan deserve their place as market leaders and well priced at 15/8 to top the group with Betfred, provided they get off to a winning start against North Korea.
Saudi Arabia could be one of the more intriguing sides to follow with goals expected to flow in the Green Falcons’ games but they could be edged out by a more shrewd China outfit. With that in mind, I can’t resist a couple of quid on the 7/1 Straight Forecast of Uzbekistan – China with BetVictor.