The new calendar year has just gotten under way, and the schedule for soccer tournaments throughout the year looks very enticing. Two of those tournaments, the Asia Cup and the Africa Cup of Nations, got underway in the past few weeks. Both have had surprising results, and with the champions still being determined at both, they both are likely to have even more shockers.
The Asia Cup is a 16-team tournament consisting of teams from all across Asia. A large majority are West Asian teams are from the Middle East, although the success teams have had is spread across the continent. While there were clearly some well-defined favorites and some minnows in the tournament, some teams rose to the expectations and some fell flat. The group stages just wrapped up, and the top two teams in each group progressed onto the quarterfinals. The top 8 teams were South Korea, Australia, China, Uzbekistan, Iran, United Arab Emirates, Japan, and Iraq.
China was a shock to many as they went through their group without dropping any points and notching 3 wins, 2 of those against very good Uzbekistan and Saudi Arabia teams. While other teams won all their group stage games, those teams being South Korea, Iran, and Japan, they were expected to do well, as all three competed in the World Cup last year. China was a surprise team since they don’t have much history of being good at soccer. So far in the tournament they have gotten 3 goals from Sun Ke. In the knockout rounds, they will face the second place team from Group A, Australia, who are hosting the tournament.
Winners: United Arab Emirates
Although they didn’t win their group, the United Arab Emirates team turned heads with how well they played, and nearly won their group over Iran, who scored a goal that may have been offsides in stoppage time to edge out UAE. Ali Mabkhout leads the team with 3 goals, but the standout player from the Emiratis is their attacking midfielder Omar Abdulrahman, whose pinpoint passing and stellar ball control make the UAE a team to look out for in the future, as many of their players are under 26 years old.
While there were other teams that lost all 3 of their games in the Asia Cup, the most shocking of them was Qatar. While they weren’t expected to hoist the trophy, fans definitely expected more from the Qataris, who won the 2014 Gulf Cup of Nations over Saudi Arabia and will host the 2022 World Cup. Maybe getting annihilated 4-1 in their opening game to UAE was too much to recover from, but losing to Iran and then to Bahrain made them flop out of the tournament without notching a win, in stark contrast to their Gulf Cup championship. Qasem Burhan was disappointing in goal, and the defense was also lacking in the three games, leading to their early exit.
Losers: Saudi Arabia
The runners-up in the Gulf Cup of Nations were the other disappointing team of the Asia Cup. Although they easily won 4-1 over North Korea, much more was expected from the Saudis, who lost in a win-or-go-home game against Uzbekistan 3-1. Saudi Arabia was playing without perhaps their best player, however, striker Nasser Al-Shamrani, so they do get cut some slack. However, better performances against China and Uzbekistan could have propelled them into the quarterfinals, and instead Saudi Arabia leaves early, although it was better than their 2011 performance when they lost all 3 games.
In the knockout stage, the first match is South Korea against Uzbekistan, which the Koreans should most likely win, maybe in another 1-0 game. They’ll play the winner of the Iran – Iraq game that should swing towards the Iranians due to their better play and World Cup experience. On the opposite side of the bracket, China takes on Australia which is the most intriguing game this round. China won all their games but none of them were against big-time teams like Australia, whom I think will defeat the Chinese and move on to the semifinals. And that leaves Japan versus the UAE, whom Japan should beat, but given their quality of play thus far, it may be a closer match than meets the eye. In the semis, I see South Korea beating Iran due to better overall play, and Japan overcoming Australia and the fan base they have from hosting the tournament. That pits South Korea against Japan in the final, which is incredibly intriguing and could see either team come out on top. It’s pretty tough to call, but I believe South Korea will take down Japan and be crowned the champions of the 2015 Asia Cup.
While that is going on, if one crosses over the Indian Ocean, another soccer tournament is underway in Equatorial Guinea, the 2015 Africa Cup of Nations. This year the field is wide open after the 2013 winners Nigeria failed to qualify. After one round of games, three of the eight games ended in 1-1 draws, leaving Group B, composed of Cape Verde, DR Congo, Tunisia, and Zambia, and Group D, which holds Cameroon, Guinea, Ivory Coast, and Mali, all in a joint tie for first with 1 point. Some of the star teams that are expected to go all the way shone brightly, others seemed to fizzle out and not show up. Underdog teams have proven themselves against stronger competition, so this year’s tournament is really open to all 16 teams to go for the gold.
Of the three teams that won a game, the most shocking, considering their opposition, was Senegal. Not many had them picked to win against Ghana, especially after going down 1-0 early to a penalty kick converted by André Ayew. But the Senegalese came back thanks to a goal from Stoke City player Mame Biram Diouf, and then in the dying seconds a goal from substitute Moussa Sow that gave Senegal all three points in their opening game. Considering they got drawn into the so called “Group of Death,” and were seen by many as the bottom dwellers along with South Africa, a win over powerhouse Ghana should get the team excited and give them a shot to get into the quarterfinals.
It isn’t often that a singular player is the standout star that will single-handedly make his team with, but in Gabon’s case, they have a player like that in Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. The Borussia Dortmund player is blazing fast, actually faster than Usain Bolt over 30 meters, and is great with his feet and his head. So it is no surprise that he opened the scoring for Gabon against Burkina Faso, the runners-up in the 2013 tournament. Gabon controlled the game and added another goal via forward Malick Evouna’s head. The win puts Gabon in sole possession of first place and gives them a huge chance to make it into the knockout stage, as long as Aubameyang continues to play well.
Might as well count all three teams that won as winners. Despite being many people’s favorites to win the entire tournament due to their success in the World Cup, Algeria faced a scare as South Africa went in front in their game. However; they got back into it due to an own goal from South Africa’s Thulani Hlutshwayo. After the game was tied up again, the Algerians put the pressure on and showed why they are the favorites, adding another goal from Faouzi Ghoulam just five minutes after the own goal, and one more to top it off from Islam Slimani. Despite the stumble, Algeria showed why they are picked to win when they came back to reclaim the lead and win. They are in the “Group of Death,” but being the strongest team in it and winning the opening game should give Algeria a very good chance of making it into the next round.
Losers: Mali & Guinea
Both teams from Group D faced a steep challenge as they took on powerhouse teams in Ivory Coast and Cameroon. Both were probably stunned when they scored first against their better competition, giving them a chance in their tough group. Each are probably also kicking themselves for allowing their opponents to get a goal back to salvage a point from the game. Mali especially, who were up a goal and had a man advantage when Seydou Doumbia scored the equalizer for Ivory Coast. So now instead of both of these two teams being top of the group with impressive wins, they sit in a dead-lock with all the other teams in the group with 1 point, and make it tougher for all four of them to advance into the next round.
After shocking the world and winning the Cup of Nations in 2012, Zambia are always looked at as a team to be reckoned with. DR Congo may not have got that message when they allowed the Zambians to score within just about 60 seconds in their game. Zambia, however, was the team that really lost the game. Although they did manage to secure a point, DR Congo equalized through their talisman Yannick Bolasie and made the teams share the points, while Zambia could have taken all three. Zambia also lost one of their starting midfielders, Nathan Sinkala, to an injury that will bench him for the remainder of the tournament. Their Cup of Nations started with such a bright start, but it is a tough hill to climb if Zambia wants to get out of their group, who contains the strong Tunisians and surprisingly good islanders from Cape Verde.
African soccer is incredibly tough to predict, as many of the teams expected to blow by their competition, like Ghana, Ivory Coast, and Tunisia, didn’t really show much fight, while smaller countries like Gabon rose to the challenge. After the first round of games, it is tough to predict the remainder of the tournament, especially being an African tournament, but I’ll do my best.
In Group A, Gabon will win the group on the back of Aubameyang, and despite losing their first game, Burkina Faso should be capable of winning against Equatorial Guinea and Congo to punch their ticket into the last 8. Group B is completely deadlocked, making it even tougher to predict, but if Tunisia play their best, they should win the group. Cape Verde may be able to steal their top spot, but will likely be the second place team in the group, ahead of DR Congo and Zambia. Group C was the only group with 2 winners, making the selection a bit easier. Algeria should win the group outright, and Senegal should snatch the second spot, although South Africa may be able to after already playing the toughest team in the group, Algeria. Ghana looked flat in their game, and will have to be incredible to have a chance to make it to the next round. And for Group D, Ivory Coast should come out on top. It’s a tough call between Cameroon and Mali, the latter having come in third in the past two tournaments. Because of their success in recent Cup of Nations, I’ll take Mali as the second place team in Group D.
In the quarterfinals, the first matchup is Gabon versus the island nation of Cape Verde, who are making their second ever showing at a Cup of Nations. Aubameyang and Gabon are better on paper, and should likely win, but the attack force of Héldon and Ryan Mendes on Cape Verde may give them some trouble. Next up would be Ivory Coast against Senegal, which would be an incredibly good game to watch. The Ivorians would be the more popular pick, and I am going to pick them as well, because of their incredible forward Wilfried Bony, as well as Seydou Doumbia off the bench. The third quarterfinal would be the favorites Algeria versus Mali. Algeria will win this matchup, although Mali are not a team to be taken lightly. The attacking prowess from all angles of Algeria will ultimately be too much for Mali, however, and Algeria will be victorious. The final quarterfinal would be Tunisia against Burkina Faso. One of the Burkina Faso players said their tournament will be like Spain’s 2010 World Cup, in which they lost their first game and went on to win. I’m not sure Burkina Faso will get that far, but I can see them taking down Tunisia, who have not played up to their standards in many Cup of Nations tournaments.
The semis would be matchups between Gabon and Ivory Coast and between Algeria and Burkina Faso. The Cinderella story of the tournament in my eyes will be Gabon, who will take down the powerhouse Ivory Coast and their captain Yaya Toure to make their way to the finals. This, like Gabon’s other games, will depend on the play of Aubameyang. I think he will rise to the challenge and propel Gabon into the final, making them a surprise team to be there. In the other matchup, I see no way Burkina Faso will shut down Algeria. They were the best African team at the World Cup, and they will show just how good they are when they best Burkina Faso to make it to the Cup of Nations final thanks to star players Islam Slimani and Yacine Brahimi. In the finals, the Cinderella story of Gabon will finally end as Algeria rightfully take their place as kings of African soccer. Gabon will no doubt give it a good fight, but the Algerians are undeniably the best team in Africa and will be on top of the podium as champions once the Cup of Nations is over.