Saudi Arabia, Palestine draw 0-0 ahead of Asian Cup

With the AFC Asian Cup 2023 in Qatar only one week away, Arab News assesses the chances of 10 Arab nations taking part in the 24-team tournament.

Group A (includes China, Tajikistan)

Qatar (2019 champions. FIFA ranking 58)

It has been a long five years since the triumph in the 2019 edition of the competition but, for better or worse, most of the players from the tournament in the UAE are still around, including star forwards Almoez Ali and Akram Afif.

The disaster of the 2022 World Cup on home soil still looms large and coach Felix Sanchez’s replacement Carlos Queiroz has come and gone. Another Spaniard, Tintin Marquez, is now in place. Another title seems unlikely but home soil and the experience of 2019 could make a difference.

Arab News’ prediction is round of 16.

Lebanon (2019 group stage. FIFA ranking 107)

The buildup has not been the best for a team preparing for only a third finals appearance and hoping to get past the group stage for the first time. Just last month there was a change of coach with Miodrag Radulovic returning for a second spell to replace Nikola Jurcevic, who had been in place for just two months. The Montenegrin has little time to solve Lebanon’s goalscoring issues but the team is always organized, hard to beat and full of fight.

Arab News’ prediction is group stage exit.

Group B (Australia, Uzbekistan, India)

Syria (2019 group stage. FIFA ranking 91)

Bringing in former Inter Milan and Valencia boss Hector Cuper is a coup but the Argentine boss had previously frustrated fans in Egypt and Uzbekistan with his defensive focus.

He has already shocked supporters by leaving out Omar Al-Somah, one of the best strikers in the region, and it remains to be seen where the goals will come from. It may not be pretty but despite mixed results of late, including a 5-0 loss to Japan and a tough group along with Australia and Uzbekistan, Syria should not be underestimated.

Arab News’ prediction is round of 16.

Group C (Iran, Hong Kong)

UAE (2019 semifinal. FIFA ranking 64)

The shine of the so-called golden generation of the previous decade has faded with star striker Ali Mabkhout one of the few remaining, though he is still banging them in.

Recent times have been tough but Paulo Bento, the Portuguese boss who took South Korea to the second round of the 2022 World Cup, has come in and hit the ground running. Form is excellent and there is a real energy and optimism around the team. Could be a dark horse if the route is favorable.

Arab News’ prediction is quarterfinals.

Palestine (2019 group stage. FIFA ranking 99)

This is Palestine’s third appearance but there has yet to be a win, and it will not come easy against Iran, the UAE and Hong Kong. With the war on Gaza ongoing, any victory would be cause for the kind of celebration that would greet any other team winning the whole thing. The pressure is off and Palestine, led by star striker Oday Dabbagh and cheered on by neutrals, have what it takes to get to the second round.

Arab News’ prediction is round of 16.

Group D (Japan, Indonesia, Vietnam)

Iraq (2019 round of 16. FIFA ranking 63)

The question is the same every time: Can Iraq repeat their title-winning heroics of 2007? This squad is the most internationally experienced that the country has ever had — only eight play at home, including exciting teenage winger Ali Jasim. Much depends on whether Spanish coach Jesus Casas can bring it all together. He has been there since 2022 to ensure that preparations have been more settled than usual. He will be confident of second behind Japan and then, as 2007 showed, anything can happen.

Arab News’ prediction is quarterfinals.

Group E (South Korea, Malaysia)

Bahrain (2019 round of 16. FIFA ranking 86)

It is now 20 years since Bahrain were disappointed to lose the semifinal of the 2004 tournament. This time, just getting to the knockout stages would be seen as success but they do have Juan Antonio Pizzi in place, the man who led Chile to the 2016 Copa America. He has been in charge since the summer and has spent a lot of time trying to instill his usual attacking game based on possession. May be hard to do so against South Korea in the opener but real tests come against Malaysia and Jordan.

Arab News’ prediction is round of 16.

Jordan (2019 round of 16. FIFA ranking 87)

Results have been poor in the buildup, with five defeats and two draws in the last seven games of 2023 but Jordan tend to step it up when the tournament starts.

Pressure is on coach Hussein Ammouta. The Moroccan tactician was brought in amid high expectations to replicate the 2017 success he had in the African Champions League and elsewhere, which means he may adopt a more cautious approach. He needs a good start against a much-improved Malaysia.

Arab News’ prediction is round of 16.

Group F (Thailand, Kyrgyzstan)

Saudi Arabia (2019 round of 16. FIFA ranking 56)

Roberto Mancini has been in charge since August. Expectations are always high but it was 1996 when they won their third and last trophy. The Italian named a relatively young and forward-looking squad though still needs star player Salem Al-Dawsari to shine. The Green Falcons need to do better than 2019’s second-round finish and should do so, but will need all Mancini’s tactical knowhow and the best from the players to get past the likes of Japan and South Korea.

Arab News’ prediction is a final spot.

Oman (2019 round of 16. FIFA ranking 74)

The Reds want to confirm that they are one of the continent’s best after a fine performance in qualification for the 2022 World Cup. A surprise November loss to Kyrgyzstan has, however, seen coach Branko Ivankovic criticized for the first time in his four years in charge — with questions surrounding team selections and his preference for lengthy training camps. Getting past the round of 16 for the first time is the target but more would be welcome.

Arab News’ prediction is round of 16.

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