2023 AFC Asian Cup: the full group stage review

2023 AFC Asian Cup: the full group stage review
A screen displays the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Cup groups after the draw for the AFC Asian Cup in Doha (AFP)
Short Url
Updated 13 May 2023

2023 AFC Asian Cup: the full group stage review

2023 AFC Asian Cup: the full group stage review
  • 10 Arab nations will be present in the delayed tournament now taking place in January next year

For the third AFC Asian Cup tournament in a row, there will be at least 10 Arab teams at the continental showpiece to be played in Qatar. Thursday afternoon’s draw ceremony held at the Katara Opera House was a much anticipated, much changed and oft delayed event.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2023 tournament will be played in 2024 — a full five years after the 2019 finals were held in the UAE.

Arab News previewed the six groups that will commence play on Jan. 12, 2024, below:

Group A: Qatar, China, Lebanon, Tajikistan

Qatar can be reasonably happy with the way the draw unfolded as challengers to their crown were kept away. In 2019, Qatar had to contend with Saudi Arabia at the group stage and this time the most established opponents are China, who have been on a downward trajectory since the last edition due to the effect of the pandemic on the Chinese Super League.

One of four all-Arab matchups will kick off the tournament as Lebanon take on the hosts at the Al-Bayt Stadium. The two sides met four years ago in Al-Ain, the Gulf nation eventually winning 2-0, but only after a first half goal from Ali Hammam was controversially ruled out. Both teams are under new management with Carlos Queiroz and Aleksandar Ilic, respectively, and are facing something of a rebuild.

China have qualified to every Asian Cup finals since 1976 and reached the final of the competition in 1984 and 2004, but have suffered a fall from grace in recent years.

Touted as the next Asian power since their first — and only — World Cup appearance in 2002, the results have failed to measure up to expectations. A new manager is also at the helm, Aleksandar Jankovic, meaning three out of the four managers in this group have yet to lead their team in a competitive fixture.

Tajikistan are the sole debutants at the 2023 AFC Asian Cup and they were guided here by Croat Peter Segrt. Under his tutelage, Tajikistan’s young team have become a resolute unit that can cause problems on the break. Still, progress to the knockout stages might be a bridge too far for this group of upstarts.

Group B: Australia, Uzbekistan, Syria, India

Another group that features rematches from the 2019 tournament. Australia were not at their best against Syria (a 3-2 victory) and needed penalty kicks to see off Uzbekistan in the Round of 16. Almost five years into the Graham Arnold era, Australia are battle-tested and primed for a run following an historic World Cup performance.

The question is whether Arnold will stick with his veterans or infuse youth into the team that was the oldest by average age during Qatar 2022.

Uzbekistan’s World Cup qualification hopes were extinguished early following losses to Palestine in Jerusalem and Saudi Arabia in Tashkent. From the ashes of that campaign, the team has found an identity under Srecko Katenac. The former Slovenia and Iraq manager has built his attack around Spezia striker Eldor Shomurodov. In spite of indifferent form in Serie A, Shomurodov has stepped up to meet Katenac’s challenge — wearing the captain’s armband and scoring 12 goals in his last 12 appearances with the national team. A single goal is all he needs to surpass Maxim Shatskikh as his nation’s record goalscorer.

Qatar 2023 will be Syria’s sixth appearance at an Asian Cup. In five previous appearances, the Eagles of Qasioun have never successfully managed to qualify for the knockout stage. The national team has been led by eight different managers since Ayman Al-Hakeem guided them to within a goalpost of a World Cup playoff spot in 2017. Hector Cuper, fresh off antagonizing fans in Egypt, Uzbekistan and DR Congo, will be tasked with getting a tune out of a talented side headlined by the two Omars — Khirbin and Al-Somah.

India will be stark outsiders in this group and will be heavily dependent on 39-year-old Sunil Chhetri for goal production.

Group C: Iran, UAE, Palestine, Hong Kong

This group features the losing semifinalists from the 2019 edition. UAE have not been the same since a 4-0 humiliation in Abu Dhabi at the hands of Qatar. The head of the FA has recently resigned and the current manager, Rodolfo Arrubarrenna, did not attend the draw ceremony, fueling rumors of his imminent departure.

UAE have cycled through five different managers since the last Asian Cup. Bert van Marwijk was sacked twice during that time period. There are no quick fixes for Eyal Zayed. A golden generation delivered at the Asian Cup, reaching two semifinals and losing to the eventual champion in 2015 and 2019. In the end, the big prize, a return to the FIFA World Cup for the first time since 1990, was not achieved and now the team is in urgent need of a rebuild.

The Emirati FA opted to naturalize Caio Canedo, Fabio Lima, and Sebastian Tagliabue to add extra firepower to the attack during World Cup qualifying. All three of these players will be over the age of 30 come Qatar 2023 and with talisman Ali Mabkhout struggling for form, the future looks far from promising.

A veteran Iran team are still at the apex of their powers and will try to translate that into a first continental crown since 1976. The appointment of Amir Ghalenoei left followers of Team Melli somewhat underwhelmed but the side should be able to cruise to the knockouts with little drama, having not lost a group stage match since a 2-1 loss to Iraq in 1996.

Hong Kong returns to the fold for the first time since 1968 but with little star power and even less experience.

Palestine could be this tournament’s dark horse. The side has a 100 percent record in five competitive fixtures under Makram Dabboub, scoring 17 goals and conceding none in the process. In attack the scintillating Oday Dabbagh can wreak havoc on defenses as a provider or as a goalscorer. In tighter encounters they can rely on the services of one of Asia’s best goalkeepers, Rami Hamadi, who has racked up 20 clean sheets in just 36 appearances with Al-Fida’i.

Group D: Japan, Iraq, Vietnam, Indonesia

Iraqi fans are still in a state of euphoria following their Gulf Cup triumph in January. There seems to be an opportunity to weld together a team featuring promising locally based players with those from the diaspora under the guidance of Spaniard Jesus Casas.

The question is whether or not this represents yet another false dawn for the Lions of Mesopotamia. Since their debut in 1972, Iraq have successfully navigated the group stage of every tournament finals they have been a part of.

Success for Iraq will not be measured by simply getting out of the group, though. Iraq must find a way to prove that they can compete and beat elite nations such Japan — something they failed to do during their last World Cup qualification campaign.

While success in the Gulf Cup was a welcome sight for Iraqi fans, it was not easy, and the team needed every last strand of its home field advantage to emerge victorious against Oman in the final.

Grouped with the best team in Asia and tricky propositions in Indonesia and Vietnam, the group stage will be a litmus test of how far Iraq have come under Casas.

Group E: South Korea, Jordan, Bahrain, Malaysia

Over the last cycle, Bahrain won plaudits for being the most improved Arab team. Helio Sousa guided his side to the 2019 Gulf Cup and the 2019 West Asian Football Federation Championship. His team also famously beat Iran in World Cup qualification that year and perhaps could have gone on to achieve more had the pandemic not paused international football in Asia for 18 months.

Jordan have underachieved after winning their 2019 Asian Cup group by registering two spectacular wins against Australia and Syria. That disappointing form led the FA back to an old flame, Adnan Hamed. Neither team or tactician reached the heights individually that they did collectively. A dose of youth has been injected into the side, especially in attack, where talisman Musa Al-Taamari can now rely on the services of Qatar-based duo Yazan Al-Naimat and Ali Olwan, in addition to Esperance playmaker Sharara.

Bahrain and Jordan should cause problems for Jurgen Klinsmann’s South Korea and the German’s lack of familiarity with Asian football could be badly exposed come January.

Malaysia will take heart from the fact that they pushed Bahrain to the limits in a 2-1 loss during the qualification phase. That said, this is the Harimau Malaya’s first successful qualification since 1980 and advancing from a tough group might be a tall order.

Group F: Saudi Arabia, Oman, Kyrgyzstan, Thailand

Herve Renard penned a contract extension following a famous 2-1 win over Argentina at the World Cup but had a change of heart when the opportunity to lead France at the Women’s World Cup and Paris Olympics presented itself. On paper, Saudi Arabia should be the favorites to win this group and advance deep into the tournament, but questions remain.

The team have no established number nine as a result of many Saudi Pro League teams using up their forward slots on expensive foreign talents. Goalkeeping remains a problem area as well, not aided by the fact that foreign stoppers are starting for the Kingdom’s elite clubs.

Most importantly, a new managerial appointment does not seem imminent and there is a growing feeling that interim manager Saad Al-Shehri will be given the chance to step up from the U-23s and audition for the role on a permanent basis.

Oman have been an overachieving unit throughout Branko Ivanovic’s tenure. A measure of revenge was gained against Saudi Arabia at the Gulf Cup for two narrow losses suffered at the hands of their neighbors during World Cup qualification. That Gulf Cup campaign ended in a heartbreaking extra time loss to Iraq in the final but Ivanovic has shown, both at the Gulf Cup and at the FIFA Arab Cup, his ability to prepare a team for a tournament.

Rounding out the group are teams that will need to improve before the tournament arrives. Kyrgyzstan recently parted ways with their manager of nine years, Aleksandr Krestinin, while Thailand, regarded as the best team in Southeast Asia, will need to overcome two Arab teams they have had sparse success against.

WWE fans see their heroes battling for glory

WWE fans see their heroes battling for glory
Updated 27 May 2023

WWE fans see their heroes battling for glory

WWE fans see their heroes battling for glory
  • Jeddah Superdome reverberates with roars of 13,000 people

JEDDAH: The Jeddah Superdome could not contain the pandemonium and excitement expressed by more than 13,000 WWE fans. The Night of Champions had fans hanging from the rafters and provided excitement from bell to bell.

The evening showcased superstars such as AJ Styles, Brock Lesnar, Seth Rollins, Roman Reigns, Trish Stratus, and others who kept fans out of their seats throughout.

The premium live event showcased WWE’s commitment to its partnership with the General Entertainment Authority to provide sports entertainment. This was the ninth event of the partnership.

WWE has also taken its offering to the world and plans to visit more destinations to spread the word.

Stratus, who is in the WWE Hall of Fame, said: “(It’s) an absolute dream come true, honestly, coming back at this point in my career.

“I was excited to come back, to do my matches and interact with the different talents that I did not have a chance to interact with before, but to do special things like this and come over to the Kingdom, and be welcomed so warmly by the Kingdom, has been wonderful.

“I’ve had a great trip so far, and honestly, I look forward to coming back again, whenever.”

It was an evening of fireworks, indoors and outside, and thousands of people shouting and chanting the names of their favorite wrestlers.

People stood on their seats, holding up signs to cheer on their champions. Some were supportive; others mocking. There were even children in the front row.

Susan Bhatia, from England, who has been living in the Kingdom for over 30 years, went to the event with her daughter and said: “I have attended many WWE events in Philadelphia, Buffalo, and Orlando, but today it is my first time here in Jeddah.”

Dhari Al-Rashed, a 33-year-old journalist from Kuwait, told Arab News that he attended to see his favorite stars.

He said: “I am here to see my idol, Trish Stratus. She’s the female wrestler who was coming out of retirement for just one match today.”

He added that he had attended WWE showdowns for years and his first time was back in 2004 in Houston, Texas.

British fan Sam Waddington, a big fan of Triple H (Paul Michael Levesque) since the age of 10, told Arab News it was the first time he had attended a WWE event in Saudi Arabia.

He added: “I’m also a big fan of Trish Stratus.”

Yousif Al-Mizyan, a fan from the Kingdom who attended with his family, said: “I was so thrilled once I saw the event was coming to Saudi Arabia. I am a fan of Reigns.”

Al-Ittihad champions as Al-Nassr and Ronaldo stumble

Al-Ittihad champions as Al-Nassr and Ronaldo stumble
Updated 28 May 2023

Al-Ittihad champions as Al-Nassr and Ronaldo stumble

Al-Ittihad champions as Al-Nassr and Ronaldo stumble

Al-Ittihad are Saudi Arabian champions for the first time since 2009 after defeating Al-Fayha 3- 0 on Saturday in the penultimate round of fixtures in the Roshn Saudi League. Second-placed Al-Nassr came back to draw 1-1 at Ettifaq but it was not enough as Ittihad’s win ended an exciting title race. It is a well-deserved triumph for coach Nuno Santo and his players who saw off the challenge of Cristiano Ronaldo and Al-Nassr to lift a hard-fought and deserved prize.

At kick-off, Al-Ittihad knew that a win would be enough for title number nine but they also knew that they had been in good positions before and failed to finish the job such as last season when a 16-point advantage over Al-Hilal did not prove to be enough. Any nerves were, however,  reduced after three minutes as Ahmed Sharahili sent the Jeddah giants on their way. Igor Coronado floated over a deep free-kick and Sharahili reacted to stab the ball home from close range and the celebrations in Jeddah started to bubble under the surface.

That early strike was a blow for Al-Nassr who hit the post in the first half thanks to a shot from Luiz Gustavo from close range.but three minutes before the break, the Yellows fell behind.Saeed Al-Mowalad crossed from the right and Youssouf Niakate swept home from close range to finish a perfect move. It was harsh on Al-Nassr who had dominated possession and had the better of the chances but they could feel that their chances of league title number ten were slipping away.

Ronaldo and his team continued to work hard but received another body blow just before the break as Al-Ittihad extended their lead thanks to another set piece. Coronado floated over a free-kick once again and this time Romarinho – the Brazilian has been one of the players of the season – headed home. It prompted wild celebrations among the travelling fans who knew that their 14-year wait was almost over.

Al-Nassr were not about to give up without a fight however. After 56 minutes Abdulrahman Ghareeb passed back to the onrushing Gustavo who unleashed a rocket of a shot into the top corner of the Ettifaq goal from outside the area. It was a spectacular effort. With ten minutes remaining, it looked as if the game was won as Ghareeb pulled the ball back for Gustavo to fire an unstoppable shot into the Ettifaq net. It was ruled out by VAR, which spotted an offside in the build up. In the end, it didn’t really matter as Al-Ittihad rarely looked like losing their two-goal lead and their grip on the league trophy. Soon after, the Tigers made it 3-0 as Romarinho broke free to slot the ball home from just inside the area.

It meant that the celebrations could start in earnest as Al-Ittihad took the points before the end of the Al-Nassr game. It has been a deserved triumph.

Elsewhere, defending champions Al-Hilal moved into third place with a 3-0 win at Abha. Mohammed Al-Qahtani opened the scoring after 11 minutes and Odion Ighalo extended that lead a minute before the break. Abdullah Al-Hamdan added a third.

The relegation battle is hotting up. In the battle of the two teams at the bottom of the table, Al-Batin, who are already relegated, drew 2-2 with next to bottom Al-Adalah who are a point behind safety and Al-Khaleej who drew 0-0 with  Al-Raed. Al-Wedha are now safe after defeating Al-Tai 2-1.

The headlines however belong, for once, not to Criistiano Ronaldo, but to the new champions of Al-Ittihad.

Luton gains promotion to Premier League after beating Coventry in penalty shootout

Luton gains promotion to Premier League after beating Coventry in penalty shootout
Updated 27 May 2023

Luton gains promotion to Premier League after beating Coventry in penalty shootout

Luton gains promotion to Premier League after beating Coventry in penalty shootout
  • Coventry's Fankaty Dabo sent his spot kick high and wide to give Luton a 6-5 win in the shootout following a 1-1 draw
  • It marks Luton's first return to England's top division since 1991-92 — the year before it was rebranded as the Premier League

LONDON: Luton will play in the Premier League for the first time next season after beating Coventry following a penalty shootout in the Championship playoff final at Wembley on Saturday.
Coventry’s Fankaty Dabo sent his spot kick high and wide to give Luton a 6-5 win in the shootout following a 1-1 draw after extra time in what is usually dubbed the most lucrative match in world soccer. The winner is expected to get in excess of $200 million in future earnings for gaining promotion to the Premier League, the richest league in world soccer.
It marks Luton’s first return to England’s top division since 1991-92 — the year before it was rebranded as the Premier League.
Coventry were trying to return for the first time since being relegated in 2001 following a 34-year stint in the first division.
Luton had a scary start to the game as captain Tom Lockyer fell to the ground untouched and then remained down for several minutes while he received medical attention. Lockyear was carried off on a stretcher and taken to a hospital for further medical checks, with Luton saying he was conscious and responsive.
Despite that setback, Luton largely dominated the first half and took the lead in the 23rd minute through Jordan Clark, who received a cutback from Elijah Adebayo and took one touch to go past a defender and rifle home a left-foot shot high into the net.
Luton also had two goals disallowed before the break, but Coventry were much improved in the second half and got back into the game in the 66th.
Viktor Gyokeres ran down the left flank and teed up Gustavo Hamer, who slotted in a low shot from the edge of the area to send the sky-blue half of Wembley into a frenzy.
Luton substitute Joe Taylor thought he had scored the winner 25 minutes into extra time but it was ruled out by VAR as he handled the ball after robbing defender Jonathan Panzo of possession.
In the shootout, the first 11 penalty takers all scored their spot kicks before Dabo sent his off target.

Djokovic says ‘part of me will leave’ when Nadal quits

Djokovic says ‘part of me will leave’ when Nadal quits
Updated 27 May 2023

Djokovic says ‘part of me will leave’ when Nadal quits

Djokovic says ‘part of me will leave’ when Nadal quits
  • Djokovic shares the all-time men's record of 22 Grand Slam titles with Nadal but can break that tie by winning the French Open for a third time
  • Nadal, the 14-time champion in Paris, is sitting out Roland Garros with a hip injury

PARIS: Novak Djokovic admitted Saturday that when career-long rival Rafael Nadal retires next year “part of me will be leaving too.”
Djokovic shares the all-time men’s record of 22 Grand Slam titles with Nadal but can break that tie by winning the French Open for a third time.
Nadal, the 14-time champion in Paris, is sitting out Roland Garros with a hip injury. With his 37th birthday fast approaching, the Spaniard has admitted that 2024 will likely be his final year on tour.
“When he announced that he’s going to have his last season of his career, I felt part of me is leaving with him too,” said Djokovic.
“It made me think about my career and how long I’m going to play.
“I’m not going to make any announcement today, but just reflecting on it. I felt also a little bit emotional about what he was saying.”
Djokovic holds a 30-29 career edge over Nadal but the Spanish star has been the superior force at Roland Garros with eight wins in the pair’s 10 meetings.
“I don’t like seeing him in the draw of Roland Garros, to be honest,” added Djokovic.
“I have had not so much success against him in our head-to-head. I have managed to beat him twice, but I had to leave my heart and my guts out on the court to achieve that.”
Should Djokovic add the 2023 French Open title to his wins in 2016 and 2021, he will not only break the Grand Slam tie with Nadal in the men’s record books.
He would also go level with Serena Williams’s 23 and be just one short of the overall record for men and women in the sport — the 24 Grand Slams held by Margaret Court.
“It’s no secret that one of the main reasons I play today and compete in professional tennis is to try to break more records and make more history in tennis,” said Djokovic.
“That’s extremely motivating and inspiring for me. History being on the line is something that is very flattering.”
Despite his two titles at Roland Garros, Djokovic insists current world number one Carlos Alcaraz is favorite to add a maiden Paris crown to his US Open triumph.
The 20-year-old Spaniard, 16 years Djokovic’s junior, has titles on clay in Buenos Aires, Madrid and Barcelona this spring.
By comparison, Djokovic failed to get beyond the last eight in any of his clay tournaments with his progress hampered by the recurrence of an elbow injury.
“He’s No. 1 in the world, and he’s a player that won big titles on clay this season. So right now he is the biggest favorite regardless of the fact that he has one Grand Slam and I have 22.”
Djokovic and Alcaraz are seeded to meet in the semifinals of the French Open which starts Sunday.
Alcaraz will start his campaign against Italy’s world number 159 Flavio Cobolli.
Djokovic, meanwhile, will take on 114th-ranked Aleksandar Kovacevic of the United States who will be making his main draw bow at the major.

Musiala takes Bayern to 11th straight title after Dortmund held

Musiala takes Bayern to 11th straight title after Dortmund held
Updated 27 May 2023

Musiala takes Bayern to 11th straight title after Dortmund held

Musiala takes Bayern to 11th straight title after Dortmund held
  • Dortmund scored two second half goals to draw the game but the point was not enough, Bayern winning the title on goal difference
  • Minutes after Bayern Munich clinched their Bundesliga league title, the club said they had decided to fire chairman Oliver Kahn and sporting director Hasan Salihamidzic

DORTMUND, Germany: Bayern Munich have won their 11th straight Bundesliga title, a 90th minute goal from Jamal Musiala sealing a late 2-1 win at Cologne after Borussia Dortmund were held 2-2 at home to Mainz.
With Bayern needing a win to overtake Dortmund, the England-raised Germany forward hammered home with the clock winding down, ensuring the Bavarians keep their grip on the title for another season.
Dortmund knew a win would guarantee a title, but were 2-0 down after just 25 minutes, with striker Sebastien Haller also having missed a penalty.
Dortmund scored two second half goals to draw the game but the point was not enough, Bayern winning the title on goal difference.
Heading into the final matchday, with Dortmund two clear atop the table, Bayern knew only a win would give them hope of a title, while hoping for a Dortmund collapse.
France forward Kingsley Coman struck after eight minutes to set down the gauntlet to Dortmund, playing one hour to the north.
Despite a bright start, Dortmund soon found themselves behind 1-0 after 15 minutes, Andreas Hanche-Olsen tapping in from a corner.
Dortmund were handed a lifeline when Raphael Guerreiro was brought down in the box, but Sebastien Haller failed to convert the penalty.
Mainz doubled their lead shortly after, Karim Onisiwo heading in from close range as the visitors began tearing up the home fans’ script.
The home side, who had scored 15 goals in their past three home games, grew nervous and lacked potency in front of goal, while Mainz grew bullish and had several chances on the counter.
With time winding down, Guerreiro gave the home side hope, scoring with 20 minutes remaining.
Word filtered around the ground that Cologne had equalized with ten minutes remaining, Dejan Ljubicic converting from the spot, but Musiala’s strike again took Bayern atop the table.
Niklas Suele added another in the sixth minute of injury time, but Dortmund were unable to conjure the comeback which would have broken Bayern’s hold on the German title.
Meanwhile, minutes after Bayern Munich clinched their Bundesliga league title, the club said they had decided to fire chairman Oliver Kahn and sporting director Hasan Salihamidzic.
“You have probably heard what we have decided with the supervisory board,” club president Herbert Hainer told media in the mixed zone in Cologne where, the club salvaged their 33rd German league title when Jamal Musiala hit an 89th-minute winner.
One bright spot for the disappointed home side was that arch rivals Schalke were relegated, after a 4-2 loss at RB Leipzig.
Schalke had fought back to equalize from two goals down, but Leipzig scored twice in the final ten minutes to secure Schalke’s fate.
Elsewhere, Union Berlin secured Champions League football for the first time with a 1-0 home win over Werder Bremen.
Union captain Rani Khedira scored a goal with nine minutes remaining, ensuring victory for the home side and keeping alive a remarkable fourth season in the top division.
Also on track for a first ever Champions League berth but needing Union to slip up, Freiburg lost 2-1 away at Frankfurt. Leading 1-0 after a Vincenzo Grifo strike, Freiburg conceded two goals in the last 10 minutes and will instead play Europa League next season.
Stuttgart’s 1-1 draw at Hoffenheim means they finish third last, ensuring a shot at staying in the second division through the relegation playoff.
Bochum’s 3-0 win at Leverkusen also ensures they will play top division football for another season, taking them from second last to the safety of 14th.
A ten-man Augsburg lost 2-0 at Borussia Moenchengladbach but will also stay up, having finished 15th.
Relegated Hertha Berlin won 2-1 away at Wolfsburg, denying the hosts a chance at leapfrogging Leverkusen into Europe.