With Asia’s premier continental competition upon us, Sami Faizullah has a look at 5 young players (aged 22 and below during the start of the tournament) that could make an impact.
Asian Football still remains the most underdeveloped footballing continent, and one in need of stringent reforms to improve the quality of the sport. But the 2015 AFC Asian Cup gives an opportunity to not only see the continent’s finest, but also an opportunity for the larger audience to witness the exploits of the future stars. These stars could pave the way for the development of the beautiful game in the culturally diverse region of Asia.
The following five stars stand-out among the 16 participating nations who could make an impact in Australia. Talent Radar will certainly be keeping a keen eye, and you should to!
IRAQ | 21 | LEFT-BACK | RIZESPOR
Who? The Iraqi full-back is part of a hugely successful generation of footballers coming through from the war-torn country. The youngster was a part of the impressive Iraqi side that reached the semi-finals of the U-20 World Cup in 2013, the performances which led him to receiving the 2013 Asian Young Player of the Year Award. He was a part of our Talent Radar 100 Young Players to Watch in 2014.
Why? The man currently at Turkish side Caykur Rizespor can best be described as an explosive full-back. The 21-year-old has a tendency to use his pace to maximum effect, constantly pushing forward and thrusting himself against opponents on the ball. The Iraqi international could very well be deployed as a winger, but that would undermine his influence in defence as he is capable of tracking back quicker than your average Asian full-backs. His ability cross, especially from deeper positions can prove to be vital if an ideal target exists in the box. In addition, his strength off the ball is crucial in recovering possession, while his ability from dead ball situations is a valuable asset as well. You can read a detailed Scout Report on Ali Adnan here.
Expectation (Team): While Japan remain the favourites to go through in first place from the group, Iraq will certainly fancy their chances. Gone are the days where Iraq are seen as darkhorses, after having experienced success in the last couple of years, expectations have carefully been raised. With Jordan and Palestine the other opponents, 6 points will be a fair expectation.
AUSTRALIA | 22 | GOALKEEPER | CLUB BRUGGE
Who? 22-year-old Ryan emerged from the A-League winning a number of accolades including the best goalkeeper and young players in the competition, in the process convincing experts that Australia finally had it’s replacement for ever-reliable Mark Schwarzer.
Why? The ex-Central Coast Mariners keeper has a growing reputation in European circles, justified by his confident performances. The youngster has good shot stopping ability and does not shying away from coming out of his goal to faze on-rushing attackers. In addition to this, Mathew Ryan’s distribution, both with his feet and hands, allows the 10 players ahead of him to fluidly implement the system. This tactical discipline again stems from the experience in European football with the Aussie being first-choice at Belgian side, Club Brugge. Though only 22, Ryan now has a difficult task of managing expectations and pressure of being the starting keeper for the host nation and favourites of a major tournament.
Expectation (Team): With the Australian side consistently meeting their target of qualifiying for the World Cup and an A-League side having secured the continent’s premier club competition a few months back, the Asian Cup remains the major vacancy from the list of achievements down under. As hosts, the expectations would be to completing that clean sweep, and anything but a final appearance will be a disappointment.
IRAN | 20 | STRIKER | RUBIN KAZAN
Who? At a time when the Iranian national team is taking full advantage of it’s vast diaspora, it’s one individual born and bred in the Persian state that remains a benchmark of progress. Sardar Azmoun, who earned a move to Russia after a good showing with Sepahan, gives hope for youngsters looking to make a name for themselves in the sport. The striker was one of the players who featured in our list of 100 Best Young Players to Watch in 2015.
Why? With the physical presence of a traditional centre-forward and the ability to deliver on his appearance, Azmoun may seem like just a reliable goal-scorer (which he is). But there is plenty more to his game that often leaves viewers astounded. The youngster has the instinct to set-up play and find a pass with typical ease, adding the ability to create to his proven goal-scoring. Given these attributes, Azmoun would work well alone up front, in a partnership and even behind another striker. Having grown up on less than impressive Iranian pitches, it is bound to have helped him develop his skill set having had to work harder to perform well technically. It remains to be seen if the 20-year-old can secure a starting berth ahead of the more experienced individuals, but given the chance at this stage would be ideal for the youngster to flourish.
Expectation (Team): While Iran have won the Asian Cup 3 times, beaten only by Japan in that regard, they have failed to impress in the competition in the 21st century. But as Asia’s highest ranked nation, there’s a growing belief that the side can stake a claim beyond the obvious choices of Australia, Japan and Korea Republic. It would be a bitter failure for Carlos Quieroz’ men if Team Melli don’t atleast manage the semi-finals (which they will).
KOREA REPULIC | 22 | WINGER | BAYER LEVERKUSEN
Who? Son Heung-Min is widely considered to be the brightest player from East Asia and potentially the greatest ever from the entire continent. Having risen to fame in Germany’s Bundesliga, impressing initially with Hamburg and currently with Bayer Leverkusen.
Why? Most Asian footballers are accused of lacking technical ability;, a criticism which admittedly is quite apt. But Son Heung-Min seems to be in a league of his own when compared to his Asian counterparts. Having developed his footballing ability over the last 3 years or so in a European environment, the Korean international is only Asian by nationality and a completely contradiction of it in a footballing sense. Blessed with great technique, control of the ball and a surprisingly powerful shot on him, Son is as European an Asian footballer you’ll ever see. Besides his physical ability, his intelligence on and off the ball further sets him apart and will do so at the Asian Cup as well. A potentially early contender for player of the tournament, if things go according to plan.
Expectation (Team): While it would be wrong to undermine any side participating in the Asian Cup, Group A looks set to be stormed by hosts Australian and fellow contenders Korea Republic. The East Asian giants won’t rest with getting through from the group, with a semi-final berth likely a primary target, if not beyond.
SAUDI ARABIA | 22 | LEFT-BACK | AL-HILAL
Who? Young full-back who plies his trade with the runners-up of the AFC Champions League, having earned himself a move up the league two seasons back. Al-Shahrani was also a part of the Saudi side that reached the knock-out stage of the 2011 U-20 World Cup before being losing to eventual champions, Brazil.
Why? The young full-back will be looking to battle Abdullah Al-Zori for the spot on the left side of Cosmin Olaroui’s defence. Both the left sided options who play at Olaroui’s ex-club Al Hilal, share an attacking mentality which the head coach will undoubtedly be looking to exploit. Though Al-Zori is the more experienced of the two, Al-Shahrani’s versatility is something that could be beneficial tactically, to the entire system. The 22-year-old can play at right-back, as he did in the Champions League final; a full-backs’ ability to play on either flank can be tactical weapon as the individual will have a better understanding of situations, especially defensively. It is widely expected that the younger of the two will be favoured in the starting eleven. Thought defensively not the most solid and now infamous for his horrifying miss against Moldova, Al Shahrani has bags of potential and should use this platform to propel his career.
Expectation (Team): The Saudi side were as high as 21st ranked just a decade ago, but now find themselves languishing with minnows of world football, flirting with falling into the bottom 100 rankings. A side that earlier were an assured participant at the World Cup, now struggle to get through to the latter stages of qualifying. While Saudi domestic football is still competitive compared to the Asian market, the national side need to rise up and impress. The 2015 Asian Cup could serve as a new dawn, with qualification from a rather easy group the bare minimum.
Written by Sami Faizullah