Australia, South Korea rematch headlines tantalising Asian Cup quarterfinal lineup

It hardly seems that long ago when the 2023 AFC Asian Cup kicked off on Jan. 12.

Now, it is down to eight teams vying to be crowned champions in the 18th edition of the continental’s premier international tournament.

There was no shortage of drama in the round of 16 with three games going down to the wire and having to be decided by the penalty shootout, and one even produced a major upset.

Over the next two days, the contenders will be whittled down further to the final four and there is plenty to look forward to with several storylines waiting to emerge.

Quarterfinals will deliver one shock name in the final four

As the only debutants at this edition of the Asian Cup, few would have been expecting to see Tajikistan in the knockout round – let alone the last eight.

By Friday evening, it could even be the semifinals.

In what will go down as a dream run regardless of what happens from hereon in, Tajikistan have not only exceeded expectations but have gained many admirers from the manner in which they are doing so.

Led by the quirky but charismatic Petar Šegrt in the dugout, Tajikistan have not only been fearless in the way they qualified from a group which included Qatar, China and Lebanon and then saw off 2019 semifinalists United Arab Emirates in the last 16, but have also produced rather attractive football along the way.

Yet, it not Tajikistan, then it would still be quite a story if Jordan are to reach the last four for the first time ever.

While the Jordanians are regular features of the Asian Cup and have reached the knockout round in four of the past six editions, they have never gotten past the quarterfinals but now have an excellent chance to do so.

Either way, the semifinals will consist a real surprise — which should please those who love an underdog story.

Australia, South Korea meet in 2015 final rematch

For two teams that are powerhouses in the AFC and are constantly going deep into the later qualifying rounds of the FIFA World Cup, it is interesting to note that Australia and South Korea have not faced off in a competitive fixtures in nine years.

The last time they met? The final of the 2015 Asian Cup, which turned out to be an absolutely thriller that saw Massimo Luongo write his name in Socceroos folklore with an extra-time winner after a then 22-year-old Son Heung-Min had bagged a 91st-minute equaliser.

The party line in the South Korea camp is almost certain to be that revenge is not on their minds, yet that memory will serve as a stinging reminder of the pain of failure to Son, who is one of just three surviving members of that squad.

Now 31, this is seemingly his best chance of ending the Taegeuk Warriors’ incredible 64-year wait for a third continental crown but — after only just seeing off another powerhouse in Saudi Arabia — they will know it will not get easier against Australia.

On paper, this may not be the most formidable Australia outfit compared to others over the past decade but they have been motoring along nicely with three wins and a draw so far in the tournament — scoring eight goals and conceding just once in the process.

While the pre-match narratives ahead of Friday evening’s tie will naturally include how much special attention the Socceroos pay to the world-class Son, the midfield battle is looming as particularly crucial.

If they have it on their terms, it almost looks as though Hwang In-Beom and Lee Jae-Sung have their own ball given the way they dictate the tempo for South Korea — but that will certainly not be the case against Australia with Jackson Irvine and company ever-eager to pressure the opposition into coughing up possession.

A second heavyweight clash between Japan and Iran

If the Australia vs. South Korea looked a massive tie, it will be easily rivalled on Wednesday when two teams that have combined for seven Asian Cups lock horns.

A rematch of the 2019 semifinal, it was Japan who emerged triumphant over Iran five years ago when they recorded a surprisingly comfortable 3-0 win.

Japan have not exactly fired on all cylinders so far at the tournament and, while coach Hajime Moriyasu has retained his faith in young goalkeeper Zion Suzuki, the fact that he has now gifted goals to the opposition in each of their four matches means there will be some nerves in the Samurai Blue backline.

Their cause will however be helped by successful return from injury for Brighton star Kaoru Mitoma, who dazzled in a 30-minute cameo as a substitute in their 3-1 last-16 win over Bahrain, as well as the fact that the opposition will be without a key man of their own in the suspended Mehdi Taremi.

With three goals to his name at the tournament, Taremi was ruled out of the quarterfinals after getting sent off against Syria — for a second bookable offence following a last-ditch attempt to put an end to a promising opposition counterattack in the 90th minute.

Team Melli have no shortage of alternative avenues to goal with Karim Ansarifard the likeliest replacement to come in alongside another Europe-based name in Sardar Azmoun, but Iran will also be without injured first-choice right-back Sadegh Moharrami — having already lost the services of centre-back Morteza Pouraliganji before the start of the tournament.

And while Japan are hoping to end a 13-year wait for a record-extending fifth crown, Iran’s suffering has gone on for much longer as they bid to see off Wednesday’s opponents and keep alive their quest to move level on four titles with their first since 1976.

Reigning champions Qatar face toughest test yet

As the only team left in the competition to have won all four games thus far, it has been business as usual for hosts and defending champions Qatar.

Taking nothing away from how steady they have been, the luck of the draw has perhaps been kind to them — but all that will change on Wednesday when they entertain Uzbekistan.

Regardless of whether they are viewed as sleeping giants or perennial nearly-men, the White Wolves have reached the Asian Cup knockout round in every edition since 2004 but have only once made it past the quarters.

This is despite their constant ability to bring through quality players such as Server Djeparov and Eldor Shomurodov — with the latest gem in the team being 20-year-old Abbosbek Fayzullaev, who is already shining in Europe with CSKA Moscow.

They will still head into their clash with Qatar as the underdogs — and that is not just because their upcoming opponents have the benefit of home advantage.

The Maroons have been a well-oiled machine which only conceded for the first time in the round of 16, surprising considering coach Tintín Márquez only took charge in December.

Qatar also have immense quality in the form of Akram Afif and Hassan Al-Haydos, who are starting to make a habit of combining to score from ingenious corner kick routines, as well as Almoez Ali — the Asian Cup’s top scorer and MVP from last time out.

In a quest to make amends on home soil after a disappointing World Cup as hosts back just over a year ago, things are looking promising for the Qataris — but they will have to pass their toughest test yet if they are to go further.

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