After a two-day break, the AFC Asian Cup 2023 in Qatar returns to action as the knockout stages start on Sunday.
Here are five talking points ahead of all the action.
How will Mancini’s Saudi team counter South Korea?
Saudi Arabia versus South Korea is, on paper, the biggest clash of the second round. The group stage started badly for Saudi Arabia with Oman taking an early lead but since then, the Green Falcons have not conceded a single goal in 256 minutes of action (and the lengthy injury times can be added).
While this is encouraging, it should be pointed out that Kyrgyzstan had 10 men for almost all the game and nine men for almost half and were never going to mount many attacks, while Thailand had two goals ruled out for offside. Still, Roberto Mancini will be pleased.
Now the question is what to do against South Korea. The Koreans will look to attack as much as possible, and this is a team stronger going forward than it is at the back. Mancini’s team are going to have to do plenty of defending but will also have to make use of counterattacks.
The wing-backs Saud Abdulhamid and Mohammed Al-Breik have been perhaps the team’s most impressive performers so far, and they are going to be crucial in this game — at both ends of the pitch.
Eight of 10 Arab teams ready for action
Sixteen of the 24 teams that started still survive — a two-thirds survival rate. For Arab teams, that rate is 80 percent with only Lebanon and Oman, surprisingly so, not making it through.
It has been impressive. Bahrain won their group, finishing above South Korea, and will give Japan a good game. Jordan also looked solid, despite a poor build-up with a number of poor results.
Syria are there for the first time ever despite only scoring one goal. Now that the Qasioun Eagles are in the knockout stage with Hector Cuper in charge, they are going to be hard to beat and will be ready for extra time and penalties even if Iran will be a very difficult opponent.
Qatar also looked good and won all three games with Hassan Al-Haydos volleying what could become the goal of the tournament.
The UAE have yet to impress, but there is still time for that to change and Paulo Bento’s men will fancy their chances against Tajikistan in what is the first knockout game for the Central Asians.
Nothing to lose for Palestine
Palestine take on hosts Qatar in what is likely to be their last game in the tournament, but it has already been unforgettable. It may have started badly with a 4-1 loss to Iran, but they recovered in impressive fashion. Next came a 1-1 draw against the UAE and then followed a first-ever win at the Asian Cup. That dramatic 3-0 victory over Hong Kong sent the team into the knockout stage for the first-ever time on a wave of emotion.
Qatar have impressed so far, and it would be a major surprise if Palestine can get through; even getting to extra time would be a victory of sorts. The players have already made the Palestinian people, who are going through so much right now, proud and have presented a different face to the world. Everyone expects defeat, which means that Palestine can go for it.
There is nothing to lose in this game.
Japan and Korea need to step up
Coming into the tournament, everyone — including this writer — said that the two East Asian giants were the teams to beat. That could still be the case but so far, neither Japan nor South Korea have done anything to write back to Tokyo or Seoul about.
Japan arrived on the back of 10 straight wins but did not look convincing in a 4-2 win over Vietnam. A goalkeeping error from Zion Suzuki was at fault for one goal and then the same happened in the 2-1 loss to Iraq when Japan looked rattled. All in all, they conceded five goals. Korea let in six and were overly reliant on the class and creativity of Lee Kang-in of Paris Saint-Germain. Fans are turning against the perceived laissez-faire attitude of Jurgen Klinsmann, and Son Heung-min had to plead for a stop to nasty comments on social media.
There is still time for improvement, but all is not well.
Iraq can continue evoking memories of 2007
Iraq against Jordan could be a classic. The Lions of Mesopotamia have won all three games including the already famous 2-1 victory over Japan. It was a fine mix of skill, strength and teamwork. It also helps that Aymen Hussain scored two headers that came straight out of the Younis Mahmoud playbook. That is not the only thing reminiscent of 2007. Seventeen years ago, Iraq arrived in Bangkok with few expectations and something similar was the case earlier this month in Qatar.
Jordan will be no pushovers, however. The build-up may have been terrible in terms of results, but Hussein Ammouta has his team well-organized and there is the hugely talented Mousa Al-Taamari on the wing. Jordan were disappointed to concede a last-minute own goal that cost them a win against South Korea.