Keep an eye out: 2023 AFC Asian Cup edition

Photo Courtesy of Tourism Victoria on Flickr
Photo Courtesy of Tourism Victoria on Flickr

The stage is set, and the biggest tournament in Asian football is off to the knockout round. Sixteen teams in eight riveting matchups kick off a daunting gauntlet to the Asian Cup. Though every nation has a unique story that drives its national team, these are three matches to keep an eye out for the 2023 AFC Asian Cup knockout stage.

 

Australia vs. Indonesia

 

Australia has had a promising campaign so far, winning group B. Australia thrives most in its physicality, in particular with Leicester City center-back and Socceroo veteran Harry Souttar. Towering at 6 feet 7 inches, Souttar has become not only a harrowing threat against opposition attacks but also a key asset on set pieces and aerial duels. Across all AFC Asian Cup performances, Australia has won four of the last five group-stage matches, with the most recent match being a draw against Uzbekistan. Can they maintain this dominance through the knockout stage to clinch their first Asian Cup since 2015?

 

On the other hand, Indonesia clinched the last spot in the knockout stages as the fourth-best team of all teams to place third in their groups. They managed to seal the nation’s third win in Asian Cup history in a 1–0 victory over Vietnam to get out of the group stage. This year’s tournament is Indonesia’s first appearance in the knockout rounds, and Indonesia has the prowess to make the most out of it. With an average squad age of 24.3 years old, Indonesia holds the youngest squad in this year’s tournament. However, with a lack of experience in hand and zero clean sheets to their name, can they hold out against an offensively potent Australian squad?

 

Prediction: 3–1 Australia

 

Qatar vs. Palestine 

 

As the reigning champions of the Asian Cup, Qatar have been dominant to begin their title defense. The current title holders managed to win all their group-stage games with five goals scored. Not only do they have one of the leading scorers of the group stage in Akram Afif (3 goals), but they have also managed to keep a clean sheet in all of their matches so far. Qatar’s prowess from back to front is undoubtable, but the big question is whether they can keep form against more threatening sides. Qatar was placed in group A, which had a measly FIFA world ranking of 87.5 (with Qatar’s ranking of 58 raising this average significantly). Will these continental champions be prepared for the challenges coming their way?

 

For Palestine, the development of their true quality as a football team has followed a slow yet meaningful upward trajectory. The squad got off to a rough start to their Asian Cup campaign, losing 4–1 against group-stage winners Iran. However, through unwavering determination and admirable resilience, Palestine responded with a 1–1 draw to UAE and clinched a wildcard spot in the Round of 16 with an exhilarating 3–1 win against Hong Kong. Despite struggling in the group stages and passing as the third-best third-place squad, Palestine showed a lot of promise in their game, particularly in their dynamic attacking style. Palestine has yet to go goalless in this tournament; although this achievement can be attributed to forward players — striker Oday Dabbagh scored two of three goals against Hong Kong — their goal-scoring abilities start from the back, with wing-back Mus’ab Al Battat clocking in with two assists in the group stages. Although Palestine is the underdog in this matchup, this squad has shown more than enough heart and talent to make a deep run in the competition.

 

Prediction: 4–3 Qatar

 

Saudi Arabia vs. South Korea

 

If there is only one clash to watch for during the knockout stages, keep your eyes peeled for Saudi Arabia vs. South Korea, who share five Asian Cup titles between them. Saudi Arabia seems to have an advantage in this specific tournament setting, having topped their group with seven out of a possible nine points. What Saudi Arabia seems to boast most is their defense. Having switched back and forth between a 5–3–2 and a 3–5–2 formation, Saudi Arabia only conceded a single goal during the entire group stage. However, what may spoil their run could be their lack of clinical finishing. With an average of 19 shots taken per game but only 1.3 goals, Saudi Arabia’s 7% goal conversion rates raise concerns over their ability to score enough goals to progress through the competition. Nonetheless, Saudi Arabia’s history in the Asian Cup tournament and their defensive productivity make them a major threat in this competition.

 

South Korea, however, are AFC giants. From winning the Asian Cup twice in the 20th century to reaching the FIFA World Cup Round of 16 just over a year ago, South Korea’s dominance in Asian football spans decades. This year’s squad consists of many big names, including Kim Min-jae of Bayern Munich, Lee Kang-in of Paris Saint Germain, Hwang Hee-chan of Wolverhampton, and South Korea’s captain, Son Heung-min of Tottenham Hotspur. However, their performance in this year’s group stage was nothing short of a disappointment. Scraping out of the group in second place after only winning one of three matches, the star-studded squad has not shone as brightly as they are capable of. In contrast to their knockout stage opponents, South Korea struggled significantly on its defense, having conceded a whopping 6 goals in just three matches. Although the loss of first-choice goalkeeper Kim Seung-gyu may explain some of their defensive woes, manager Jurgen Klinsmann has yet to figure out a defensive scheme that suits his team. Will South Korea’s attacking threat be enough to win the Asian Cup?

 

Prediction: 2–1 South Korea

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