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Continent-by-Continent Breakdown: Asia

June 6, 2010

Continuing through the continents, we move to the continent of Asia (which formally includes Australia and I informally include New Zealand) where the best finisher advanced one step further (semifinals) than any country from Africa (quarterfinals). This may, however, change this year with Africa hosting this year’s World Cup. Traditional underachievers outside the 2002 World Cup in Japan and South Korea, the continent will be lucky to have one, much less two, countries advance past the group stages. Some squads are technically (South Korea and Japan) and physically (Australia and New Zealand) sound, but none have the necessary balance to compete with the world’s elite teams, but some of these squads are more than capable of an upset if everything falls into place:

MOST LIKELY TO WIN THE CUP:

SOUTH KOREA – Granted none of the Asian teams in the tournament are likely to win the cup, but South Korea is most likely to make it out of the group stages and advance further than the other four squads. They consistently make it to the final tournament, having qualified for every one since 1986. Their most memorable moment was making it to the semi-finals in the 2002 edition they hosted, knocking off European powers Portugal, Italy, and Spain in the process before falling to Germany. They’ve also performed well in recent friendlies, knocking off fellow competitors Ivory Coast (2-0) and Japan (2-0). Their strength is at outside midfield with a pair of English Premiership players: Captain Park Ji-Sung (Manchester United) and 21-year old Lee Chung-Yong (Bolton Wanderers). Another 21-year old, Celtic’s Ki-Sung Yong will look to create scoring opportunities for Ji-Sung and Chung-Yong making runs and lead striker Park Chu-Young, of AS Monaco. Their lack of size, depth, and experience in the backline are the weaknesses that might keep them advancing from the group stage.

CONTENDER:

AUSTRALIA – They qualified for their second consecutive (third overall) World Cup and first since they joined the Asian confederation. They outclassed their Asian competitors, finishing first in their group of both rounds of qualifying and look to continue their good form from friendly victories over Denmark (1-0) and rival New Zealand (2-1). They have two proven goal scorers at striker (Japan-based Joshua Kennedy and Turkey-based Harry Kewell) and another three in the midfield (Everton’s Tim Cahill, Italy-based Mark Bresciano, and Blackburn’s Brett Emerton.) They have Asia’s arguable best goalkeeper (Fulham’s Mark Schwarzer), but the backline remains largely anonymous in terms of name and talent. What would be described as a strength if they perform well and a weakness if they perform poorly is their increased age compared to other squads.  They also lack the necessary pace to compete with elite teams, as seen in the 3-1 friendly loss to the United States. Given recent injuries to Germany (Ballack, among others), Ghana (Essien), and Serbia’s poor form in recent friendlies, Australia has an increased chance of making it through the knockout stages.

PRETENDERS:

JAPAN – They’re a lot like their East Asian neighbors, South Korea, but with three glaring differences. The majority of Japan’s squad is domestic-based players compared to South Korea’s squad made of European-based players. The other hosts in 2002, Japan only made it to the quarterfinals compared to South Korea’s semifinal berth. And other than a close defeat to England, losing on two own goals, they’ve performed poorly in international friendlies (lost 2-0 to the Ivory Coast and lost 2-1 to South Korea.) Their attack is led by midfielder and No. 10 Shunsuke Nakamura and their defense is led by veteran and long-time Captain Yuji Nazakawa. Like most Asian sides, Japan traditionally performs well against African sides, but the Ivory Coast defeat does not bode well for their opening match against Cameroon which will be a long way to determining who will advance from Group E.

NORTH KOREA – They’re in the “Group of Death” with Brazil, Portugal, and the Ivory Coast. They’re a defensive-minded (4-5-1 formation is expected), counter-attacking, technically sound, but undersized squad led by Captain and Russia-based Hong Yong-Jo from his attacking midfielder position and lone striker Japan-based Jong Tae-Se. The only other time they qualified for the World Cup finals (1966), they made it to the quarterfinals, stunning Italy 1-0 in the group stages. This time, however, they will be fortunate to pick up any points, perhaps against struggling Portugal, in the group stages.

WILD-CARD:

NEW ZEALAND – They produced mixed results (1-0 win vs Serbia and 3-1 loss vs Slovenia) in Slovakia-like teams and Wednesday’s friendly against Chile will go a long way to emulate the match with Paraguay. Each of these two group matches are crucial in determining New Zealand’s fate in the group stages. They’ve played a daring 4-3-3 formation in a few games, led by Middlesborough FC striker Chris Killen. Captain Ryan Nelsen, of the Blackburn Rovers, stabilizes the defense from his center-back position. Unlike neighbor Australia, however, most of the team plays in the domestic league and the squad still competes in the less challenging Oceania confederation and both of these factors contribute to a lack of team depth. They looked outclassed in the Confederations Cup, falling to Spain (5-0), South Africa (2-0), and drawing with Iraq (0-0), but who knows how this side will perform in the country’s second World Cup appearance (1982.)

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