AFC presents Asian Cup final draw at gala evening

Debutante Australia will play in Group A against Iraq, Thailand and Oman in the Asian Football Confederation 2007 Asian Cup according to the draw conducted in a gala ceremony in Kuala Lumpur on Tuesday evening. Defending champion Japan, which has won the cup three times, went to Group B and will play against Vietnam, Asian Games gold medalist Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, which finished third in the qualifying rounds with 13 points. In Group C three-time Asian Cup winner Iran and 2004 runner-up China will vie for the top two positions beside Malaysia and Uzbekistan. Group D consists of Indonesia, South Korea, three-time winner Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.

The July 7-29 tournament will be held in four countries, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam, the first time an Asian Cup has been held in multiple countries. The four nations will host all the matches in their group. The top two teams from each group will advance to the knockout stage, which will culminate in the final in Jakarta on 29 July.

"There are no easy groups when there are four co-hosts. They can be really tough given home turf advantage. All the matches will be tough and none of the teams can afford a slip up," said Takeshi Uno, technical director of the Japan Football Association. China coach Zhu Guanghu said the draw boded well for China’s goal of reaching the semifinals. "There was some luck in the draw, but the most important thing is that we prepare with a positive attitude ... Our primary goal is to ensure our path through the group and to enter the last four, then strive for an even better achievement,” he said. “It’s a tough group, but none of these groups are easy, these are the best teams in Asia,” said Football Association of Thailand secretary-general Worawi Makudi of Group A. “We respect Australia, we know we’re behind them in the rankings, but we’re playing at home, with our own fans, and we think our boys can really do something.”

Australian chief coach Graham Arnold said Australia will field most of its European-based players. "We are demanding that they be available because it is a prestigious competition. This is our first time in the Asian tournament so we are going to do our best." He said he is glad to have avoided World Cup 2006 qualifier Saudi Arabia, "they are always a big threat so it is good to stay away from them," and is confident Australia will at least make it to the semifinals. "The interest is massive (back home). We will have a huge contingent of Australians going to Thailand to have a holiday at the same time."

But Arnold also issued a word of caution. "Historically the host nations of the Asian Cups have done well so Thailand will be looking to continue that record. Iraq recently made the final of the Asian Games and they showed us when we played them last year in Sydney how dangerous they can be. We had to come from behind and it was only a late goal by Ahmed Elrich that got us over the line 2-1. Oman are a bit of an unknown quantity. We have never played them before and they have had some solid results recently which shows they can beat anyone on their day. It's going to be warm and we will need to ensure we do the appropriate preparation work for the tournament."

Australia, Iran, Japan and South Korea, the top four teams according to FIFA rankings, were seeded before the draw under a new classification system, which ensured that they would not have to play each other until the knockout stage. It is a break from the past when teams were seeded solely on the basis of their performance in the previous AFC Asian Cup competition.

A special draw was also held for Saudi Arabia to make sure it doesn't play any match in Thailand or Vietnam. The AFC wants to avoid Saudi Arabia playing in Thailand because of diplomatic tensions between the two countries. Saudi Arabia couldn't play in Vietnam either because the runner-up of the pool playing in that country would have played the quarterfinal in Thailand. According to the Associated Press, the tensions stem from the slayings of three Saudis in Bangkok. One was a diplomat who was shot to death in front of his home in 1989 and the other two were Saudi Embassy workers who were slain in 1990. Also, relations have remained sour over the theft of a large quantity of jewels from a prince's palace in Saudi Arabia by a Thai worker in 1989.

UPDATE

Following the announcement of the draw, Australian betting agency Centrebet installed Arnold's men as favourites to win the tournament. They are offering odds of A$3.00 for the Socceroos to win the tournament on debut. "No Asian side progressed further at the World Cup than the Socceroos who beat Asian champ Japan en route to the last 16," Centrebet's Neil Evans told The Age. "They deserve to be the favourites."

According to Dan Baynes of Bloomberg, Centrebet's odds to win the Asian Cup are: Australia 2-1, Japan 11-4, South Korea 9-2, Iran 5-1, Saudi Arabia13-2, China 25-1, Qatar 33-1, Iraq 40-1, Oman 50-1, United Arab Emirates 66-1, Uzbekistan 66-1, Bahrain 100-1, Thailand 100-1, Indonesia 150-1, Malaysia 150-1 and Vietnam 150-1.

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