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With the Asian Cup just two and a half weeks away, what better way to get the ball rolling than with a countdown of the 25 players set to boil in the Australian heat?
Asian football’s reputation took a battering at this year’s world cup. Asia’s four qualifiers (Japan, Australia, South Korea and Iran) in Brazil failed to record a single victory – a far cry from the four wins achieved in 2010.
A look at the latest FIFA rankings reveal that not one Asian team is currently ranked in the top 50, with Iran (51), Japan (54) and South Korea (69) leading the way.
The Socceroos rank a measly 100th (behind renowned powerhouses Mozambique and Belarus), just two places better off than the lowest position they have been ranked since the ratings began in 1993.
Therefore, the players on the following list could be aptly described as the ‘best of a bad bunch’.
They will aim to not only restore Asia as a competitive force in World football, but more importantly create an unexpected deterrence to the emblematical Australian summer of cricket and tennis.
These are the pick of the men who will be showcasing their talents on Australian fields this summer (well just the east coast – sorry Adelaide and Perth).
25. Naif Hazazi
Team: Saudi Arabia Age: 25
Club: Al-Shabab Position: Striker
Caps: 36 Goals: 13
Owner of probably the second-best attacking header in Asian football behind Timmy, Hazazi has a phenomenal return of 22 goals in 25 games for Al-Shabab. Having starred in Nike’s first ever Middle Eastern advertisement, Hazazi will be aiming to deliver Saudi Arabia its first Asian Cup triumph since 1996.
24. Nasser Al-Shamrani
Team: Saudi Arabia Age: 31
Club: Al-Hilal Position: Forward
Caps: 69 Goals: 16
Has the potential to become what Quade Cooper was to New Zealand in the 2011 Rugby World Cup – public enemy No. 1. Al-Shamrani received an eight-match ban for spitting and head-butting Australia and Western Sydney defender Matthew Spiranovic in the Asian Champions League final.
Named Asian footballer of the year in 2014 despite the incident, he has netted 39 goals in 51 appearances for Al-Hilal.
23. Maya Yoshida
Team: Japan Age: 26
Club: Southampton Position: Centre Back
Caps: 47 Goals: 3
Yoshida has been used sparingly in the Southampton side this season, with Jose Fonte and Toby Alderweireld the preferred centre-half pairing. However as the undisputed leader of the Japanese defence, he will be the man called upon to mark Tim Cahill from corners in the final (all going to plan!).
He goes into the tournament full of confidence after scoring a header in a win over Everton on the weekend.
22. Robbie Kruse
Team: Australia Age: 26
Club: Bayer Leverkusen Position: Forward / Winger
Caps: 31 Goals: 3
Potentially the most important player in the Socceroos side, as Australia desperately needs someone not named Cahill or Jedinak to find the back of the net. After missing the World Cup with an ACL injury, Kruse is struggling for minutes at highflying Bayer Leverkusen.
If Kruse can rediscover his 2012-13 Bundesliga form (four goals, seven assists), he could prove decisive in turning around the Socceroos’ recent fortunes.
21. Masoud Shojaei
Team: Iran Age: 30
Club: Al-Shahania Position: Midfielder
Caps: 54 Goals: 5
Shojaei played five seasons in La Liga with his compatriot Nekounam at Osasuna, registering eight goals and 14 assists. The dynamic yet injury prone midfielder is a joy to watch with the ball at his feet.
Currently playing in Qatar after turning down an offer from Real Zaragoza, Shojaei will be influential in an Iran side that should top Group C.
20. Matthew Ryan
Team: Australia Age: 22
Club: Club Brugge Position: Goalkeeper
Caps: 13 Goals: 0
Australia’s incumbent number one hasn’t had the best of starts to his international career, conceding nine at the World Cup. However Ryan has received rave reviews in Belgium for his displays at club level, including being named the Belgium Pro League Goalkeeper of the Year in 2013-14.
His performances in the Gold will have to improve with Langerak and co waiting in the wings.
19. Ali Al-Habsi
Team: Oman Age: 32
Club: Wigan Athletic Position: Goalkeeper
Caps: 92 Goals: 0
The Omani captain will have to be at his very best from the outset with games against South Korea and Australia on January 10 and 13 respectively. The Wigan man has been linked with an emergency loan move to Newcastle United in the past week.
An outstanding penalty saver – Al-Habsi has saved approximately 50 per cent of attempts since joining Wigan.
18. Server Djeparov
Team: Uzbekistan Age: 32
Club: Seongnam FC Position: Attacking midfielder / Second striker
Caps: 102 Goals: 23
A two-time Asian Footballer of the Year winner, Djeparov’s natural playmaking and ability from free kicks will be on show in Australia. Captain of the side despite speaking fluent Russian and barely any Uzbek, Djeparov registered two goals and two assists last Asian cup.
17. Koo Ja-cheol
Team: South Korea Age: 25
Club: Mainz 05 Position: Midfielder
Caps: 42 Goals: 13
Koo played a leading role in South Korea’s third place finish in 2011, contributing a tournament high five goals and three assists.
Playing behind Okazaki at Mainz, Koo has three assists in 25 games. The former South Korea captain will look to provide flair with his agility and dribbling ability for Uli Stielike’s men.
16. Ashkan Dejagah
Team: Iran Age: 28
Club: Al-Arabi Position: Attacking midfielder / Winger
Caps: 18 Goals: 4
A former German U-21 international, Dejagah pace and ability to dribble past defenders will provide Iran their best attacking outlet.
After never being selected for the German first team, the winger scored a double on his debut for Iran in 2012. Dejagah scored 19 goals and 25 assists in his Bundesliga career, and was voted Fulham’s player of the year in 2013-14.
15. Ali Adnan Kadhim
Team: Iraq Age: 21
Club: Caykur Rizespor Position: Left back
Caps: 27 Goals: 1
The much-hyped Ali has been given the nickname ‘Asia’s Gareth Bale’ by Turkish media due to his superb left foot and ability from long range.
Named Asian Young Footballer of the Year in 2013, another strong showing at this Asian Cup will inevitably see Ali linked with Europe’s top clubs.
14. Lee Chung-yong
Team: South Korea Age: 26
Club: Bolton Wanderers Position: Winger
Caps: 64 Goals: 6
Despite plying his trade in the Championship for the last three seasons, new Bolton boss Neil Lennon said last weekend, ‘he’s world class and would grace any team in the country.’ After scoring twice in the 2010 World Cup, Lee’s fortunes took a dive in 2011, where a broken leg coincided with Bolton’s relegation.
13. Mile Jedinak
Team: Australia Age: 30
Club: Crystal Palace Position: Midfielder
Caps: 52 Goals: 6
In the form of his life, the Australian captain has come along leaps and bounds in recent years. Rated the seventh-best player in the Premier League this season, he was vital in keeping Crystal Palace up last campaign.
Highly regarded for his dogged tackling and intercepting, his stunning free kick goal against Liverpool last month was a pleasant surprise.
12. Atsuto Uchida
Team: Japan Age: 26
Club: Schalke 04 Position: Right back
Caps: 71 Goals: 2
Heavily linked with Arsenal earlier this year, Uchida has been a regular in the Schalke defence for over four seasons. Named in the Bundesliga team of the season two years running (although it is a fan vote and Japan has a large population), Uchida also has the honour of voicing a character in a Pokémon film.
11. Javad Nekounam
Team: Iran Age: 34
Club: Osasuna Position: Midfielder
Caps: 144 Goals: 37
The Iranian captain is expected to be fully fit despite suffering a right knee injury training for Osasuna last Tuesday. A hero in his homeland, Nekounam will retire and join the national team coaching staff following the tournament.
Despite being injury prone, the talented playmaker has carved out an impressive career with 26 goals in 173 La Liga games.
10. Vitaliy Denisov
Team: Uzbekistan Age: 27
Club: Lokomotiv Moscow Position: Left back
Caps: 45 Goals: 1
Denisov was named as the left back in the 2013-14 Russian Premier League team of the season. His six assists helped Lokomotiv to third place in his first year in Russia.
A late bloomer like Jedinak, he spent the previous six seasons of his career in the Ukraine. Not selected in the 2011 squad, Denisov will provide pace and stamina as Uzbekistan aim to top Group B.
9. Hiroshi Kiyotake
Team: Japan Age: 25
Club: Hannover 96 Position: Attacking midfielder
Caps: 25 Goals: 1
Kiyotake was given just five minutes of game time in Brazil under the now retired Alberto Zaccheroni.
His performances in the Bundesliga in recent years should warrant him a starting berth alongside Kagawa and Honda in Javier Aguirre’s side. The agile midfielder has contributed 10 goals and 21 assists in 78 league games for FC Nurnberg and Hannover 96.
8. Odil Ahmedov
Team: Uzbekistan Age: 27
Club: FC Krasnodar Position: Midfielder
Caps: 60 Goals: 11
After leading Uzbekistan to the semi-finals in 2011, Ahmedov will once again be integral to the hopes of the White Wolves. Noted for being strong defensively as well as for his long-range shooting, he moved to fellow Russian club FC Krasnodar following the relegation of former club, Anzhi Makhachkala.
He bagged a brace in his last outing for Uzbekistan in a 3-1 win over New Zealand.
7. Shinji Okazaki
Team: Japan Age: 28
Club: Mainz 05 Position: Striker
Caps: 84 Goals: 40
After a couple of largely unsuccessful seasons at Stuttgart, Okazaki has been on fire since joining Mainz. Only Robert Lewandowski (27) has more goals in the Bundesliga than Okazaki’s 23 since the start of the 2013-14 season.
Strong in the air and a great sense of positioning in the box, coupled with Japan’s talented midfield should see him thrive.
6. Ki Sung-yueng
Team: South Korea Age: 25
Club: Swansea City Position: Central Midfielder
Caps: 66 Goals: 5
The South Korean captain has started all 17 of Swansea’s league games so far this campaign, contributing goals against Manchester United, Crystal Palace and Hull. A fluent English speaker renowned for his vision and long-range passing, Ki completed three years of schooling in Brisbane before returning to South Korea.
He will aim to lead South Korea to their first Asian Cup triumph since 1960.
5. Tim Cahill
Team: Australia Age: 35
Club: New York Red Bulls Position: Forward / Attacking midfielder
Caps: 76 Goals: 36
Arguably the greatest Socceroo of all time, this fine wine has shown no signs of slowing down. After a terrific showing in Brazil, Cahill has more goals than any other Asian player in World Cup history.
His longevity stems from his world-class heading ability and positional sense. While his MLS form has been down this season with three goals and two assists from 22 games, Cahill will look to once again save his best form for the green and gold.
4. Yuto Nagatomo
Team: Japan Age: 28
Club: Internazionale Position: Full-back / Wing-back
Caps: 73 Goals: 3
The first Asian player in Inter’s history, Nagatomo has been a regular starter for his club’s backline since 2011.
His accurate crossing has led to 12 assists since joining his current club. Having played in every game in the 2011 Asian Cup triumph, Nagatomo will again be relied on to use his blistering pace to provide defensive cover and create attacking opportunities down the left flank.
3. Son Hueng-min
Team: South Korea Age: 22
Club: Bayer Leverkusen Position: Winger
Caps: 34 Goals: 7
A lethal finisher in front of goal, Australia’s maligned defence will have their hands full at Suncorp Stadium on 17 January.
Son has scored nine goals in all competitions this season, including three in helping propel Leverkusen to the knockout stages of the Champions League. Bought for 10 million euros in 2013, Son’s explosive pace and dribbling ability help make South Korea title contenders.
2. Keisuke Honda
Team: Japan Age: 28
Club: Milan Position: Attacking midfielder / Forward
Caps: 65 Goals: 24
Voted Player of the Tournament in the 2011 Asian Cup, Honda has been a bright spot for an AC Milan team in decline this season.
With six goals and two assists in 15 league games, he has proven that he can perform in one of the top leagues in Europe after four seasons with CSKA Moscow. Japan will be counting on Honda’s dribbling and ability from set pieces to help them retain the cup.
1. Shinji Kagawa
Team: Japan Age: 25
Club: Borussia Dortmund Position: Attacking midfielder
Caps: 62 Goals: 19
Borussia Dortmund manager Jurgen Klopp admitted last week that Kagawa’s form has ‘disappeared’ in recent months. Following two disappointing seasons with Manchester United, Kagawa has recorded just one goal and zero assists in nine league appearances thus far.
However the 2012 AFC International Player of the Year’s vision, movement and deft passing still make him a formidable danger to opposing defences.
There you have it. An accurate list? Way off the mark? Let me know with a comment below!