Defending champion Japan plays the newcomer Palestinians at Newcastle in its opening match at the Asian Cup on Monday, while Jordan takes on 2007 winner Iraq in Brisbane. Here’s a look at those Group D matches:
JAPAN vs. PALESTINE (0700 GMT): This will be the first competitive meeting between the teams, and Japan and AC Milan midfielder Keisuke Honda is telling the defending champions to keep it simple. ”It is crucial that we don’t make stupid mistakes. Look at the kind of heat we are going to be playing in,” Honda said after Friday’s training session in temperatures of nearly 30 Celsius (86 Fahrenheit) in Newcastle.
While Japan has a record four Asian Cup titles in the past six events, the Palestinians will be making their first tournament start after qualifying by winning the 2014 AFC Challenge Cup, keeping a clean sheet in all five of their matches.
Ranked 113th in the world, the Palestinians clinched a spot for the Asian Cup with a 1-0 win over the Philippines in the Maldives last May, despite the absence of several players due to travel restrictions.
”To be here is a like a dream. It’s like a World Cup for us, not just the players, but all of the Palestinian people,” striker and leading goal scorer Ashraf Al Fawaghra, better known as Nu’man, said. ”Through football matches we will try to send a message to the world that we are Palestinian, we are human, we want to play football.”
JORDAN vs. IRAQ (0900 GMT): Jordan has won just one of its previous 10 matches against 2007 champion Iraq, drawing twice and losing seven. Iraq has also failed to score more than one goal in each of its last six Asian Cup matches, scoring four in total, and the side won’t be helped by Jordan’s strong defensive record – the Jordanians conceded just three goals in six qualification matches for this tournament.
Iraq also comes into the Asian Cup having lost three matches in qualifying – the most of any of the 16 teams who made it to Australia – but can look to midfielder Younis Mahmoud for some inspiration from eight years ago. The captain scored a 73rd-minute header in the Asian Cup final to give Iraq its 1-0 win over Saudi Arabia and the title. Mahmoud, 31, had been without a club for the past year but was an over-age player at the Asian Games in September, scoring four times as Iraq finished third. After that performance, new coach Radhi Shenaishil recalled him for the Asian Cup.
With Japan expected to beat Palestine on Monday, the match could decide who joins the reigning champions in the last eight.