ASIA’S premier international tournament is upon us. Mark O’Haire (@MarkOHaire) explores the best bets from Group C.
Three West Asian rivals join big-hitters Iran in Group C in another delicately poised pool from the Asian Cup.
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 C teams.
Iran (4/5 Betfred)
According to the FIFA rankings, Iran are the best of the bunch in Asia. Having made it through the qualifying stages unbeaten and were arguably one of the better performing sides from the continent at last summer’s World Cup. The Persians are a force to be reckoned with.
They also have a proud record in the showpiece event, qualifying for every edition since hosting the 1968 tournament and Carlos Queiroz’s 2015 vintage should be strong enough to hold off their Group C rivals to finish top of the pile.
Iran have been dogged by the same old problems. A lack of preparation and organisation has meant they’ve only been able to arrange two friendlies since their World Cup appearance but both went to form. The Persians beat South Korea and Iraq by the same 1-0 scoreline and remain a solid force with a tough defensive line and an edge when playing on the counter-attack.
A more balanced approach is required and the Portuguese coach has promised an improved aesthetically pleasing result so optimism should be high in the Iranian camp. And with W10-D4-L3 in their last 17 games, including six clean sheets from their last nine, it’s no wonder they’re rated as market leaders.
United Arab Emirates (10/3 William Hill)
Look out, UAE are about. Since breaking the world’s top 100, the Emirates have remained in double-digit FIFA ranking figures, currently sitting at 81. Having enjoyed an unbeaten qualifying campaign, the former continental whopping boys are slowly emerging as a threat to Asian rivals.
Having garnered a goalless draw when entertaining Australia in October, Mahdi Ali’s charges continued their fine form with a spirited run at the Gulf Cup. Saudi Arabia eventually eliminated the UAE in the semis but Ali’s men were devastating in patches.
There’s no doubt the wealth of their domestic game has improved the strength in depth of the national team and that’s been shown in their dogged defensive displays. Assured and stabile at the back, they can lack a cutting edge when coming up against organised opposition despite the attacking philosophy imposed by Ali.
However, Ahmed Ali Mabkhout won the Gulf Cup golden boot and his partnership with playmaker Omar Abdulrahman remains critical to their chances of progression. Click and the Emirati can be considered potential outsiders; falter and they could be squeezed out by their neighbours Qatar.
Since 2012 UAE have W24-D10-L4 of their 38 games with only one loss by more than two goals. In that time they’ve faced Japan, Australia, Georgia, Armenia, Estonia, Lithuania, Paraguay and Norway with only Armenia and Japan coming away victories. They mean business.
Qatar (5/1 BetVictor)
Like their neighbours, Qatar arrive bragging about their recent run of results. A stellar triumph in November’s Gulf Cup outlined just how far The Maroon have come in 2014 as well as first-ever victory against tournament hosts Australia in October.
Promising young coach Djamel Belmadi has taken plenty of credit for the turnaround in the fortunes, especially as they were deprived of their star forward and standout playmaker before their Gulf Cup triumph. A simple change to a more defensive approach did the trick and their ability to switch game plans is a definite positive.
Despite the drama surrounding their World Cup bid in 2022, Qatar remain focussed on the job in hand – building a footballing culture amongst the country. Huge investment in youth football reflects their intentions and although they’ve hand their hands slapped for poaching outsiders in return for citizenship, they’re on course to continue their upward trajectory.
Belmadi is the youngest coach on show in January’s tournament and the 38-year-old Algerian will oversee a side comfortable in possession and capable on the counter. The Maroon know a result against UAE is pivotal to their prospects but there’s plenty of self-belief in the squad and if they believe they can upset the balance then so do I.
Bahrain (10/1 Ladbrokes)
Ah Bahrain. Think of Leeds and then you’ll have an idea about Bahrain and the way they do business. Can't qualify that? Think gun, bang, foot. Got it? Good.
Having failed to reach the Gulf Cup knockout stages, experienced coach Adnan Hamad was dismissed after only three months in the job. They’re now onto their third coach in the past 12 months!
The Red have only once made it into the Asian Cup knockout stages but were a tricky opponent during World Cup qualifying, finishing just a point shy of fourth. In fact, five years ago Bahrain were a game away from making the World Cup. How times change.
Today they sit 122nd in the FIFA rankings and just 14th in Asia. Their status as Group C outsiders is a fair reflection of the drastic downturn since those heady heights.
One phrase we won’t be hearing with regards to Bahrain this month is ‘expect the unexpected’ because The Red have been incredible dour and predictable over the past two years or so. A whopping 21 of their last 26 outings have featured fewer than three goals with 11 of their last 15 being settled by just one. Oh and they’ve seen eight goalless draws in those 15 games. Puke.
With those stats you probably don’t need me to tell you goalscoring is their biggest issue and defence their strong point. Failure to get enough men into attacking positions should cost them their chance of qualification in what’s been described as the toughest group of the cup.
Iran are an outright fancy and the more I look at them the more I think it doesn’t matter whether they finish first or second in the group; they’ve the ability to go the distance.
With that in mind, the odds-on quotes for the Persians to top Group C don’t appeal. Their lack of goals could count against them in what’s likely to be a hugely competitive group and they look just too short to consider.