Son Heung-min faces Saudis, Palestine make history in Asian Cup last 16, Latest Football News - The New Paper

Son Heung-min faces Saudis, Palestine make history in Asian Cup last 16

DOHA – Son Heung-min’s stuttering South Korea will take on Saudi Arabia while Palestine face hosts and holders Qatar, as the Asian Cup kicks into high gear with the knockout rounds from Jan 28.

The tournament has been whittled down from 24 teams to 16 but trying to predict who lifts the trophy on Feb 10 looks more difficult than ever.

Japan came to Qatar as favourites and looking to win the title for a record-extending fifth time, but they reached the knockout phase as only runners-up in their group behind Iraq.

Iraq impressed in deservedly beating the Samurai Blue 2-1 and along with Iran and Qatar, were the only teams to win all three games in the first round. Iraq play Jordan and Iran meet Syria next.

Jurgen Klinsmann’s South Korea would have faced Japan had they topped their group, but they were held 3-3 by Malaysia in their final game and play Roberto Mancini’s Saudis on Jan 30.

The Taeguk Warriors, who are trying to win the Asian Cup for the first time in 64 years, also drew with Jordan and coach Klinsmann is anticipating a “battle”.

“You cannot underestimate any team – every team is tactically very smart, they can hurt you even if you have 85 per cent possession,” the German warned. “There is no easy team in Asia to play.”

Skipper and talisman Son has scored twice in the tournament, both penalties, and called their madcap stalemate with already eliminated Malaysia a “big wake-up call”.

Saudi Arabia topped their group with two wins and a draw, but they have not really fired in attack and made hard work of defeating nine-man Kyrgyzstan 2-0.

“We know it will be a very difficult match, not only for us, but also for them,” said Mancini of the looming clash with South Korea in the round of 16.

In other matches, Japan play Bahrain, but like the Koreans, they have not lived up to the huge expectations placed on them.

Brighton & Hove Albion winger Kaoru Mitoma is yet to play a single minute and Hajime Moriyasu has refused to put a timeframe on his return from injury.

The coach admitted he had taken a risk in bringing him to the tournament, saying: “I don’t want to use him until he’s ready.”

Moriyasu will keep faith with Zion Suzuki, 21, despite the inexperienced goalkeeper being culpable for at least two of the five goals Japan conceded in the group stage.

Bahrain coach Juan Antonio Pizzi will be seeking personal redemption, after he led Saudi Arabia to a loss against the Japanese at the same stage in 2019.

Qatar impressed in tearing through Group A and face Palestine, who defeated Hong Kong 3-0 – their first victory in the competition’s history.

That landmark achievement, against the backdrop of the war in Gaza, also put the Palestinians into the Asian Cup knockout rounds for the first time.

The hosts will be favourites to reach the last eight and, with home advantage, look set to go deep in the competition.

But no matter what happens on Jan 29, captain Musab Al-Battat said his team had fulfilled a “promise to the Palestinian people”. “We managed to put a smile on the faces of those who follow us... inside or outside Palestine,” he added.

The knockout phase begins on Jan 28 when Australia play Indonesia, followed the same day by the United Arab Emirates against tournament debutants Tajikistan. – AFP


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