What we've learned from the Asian Cup
The group stage of the 2011 Asian Cup is done and dusted and 24 games between the continent's best have been watched by fans all over the world. ESPNsoccernet picks out ten things that those watching proceedings in Qatar have learned.
1. Saudi football, on and off the pitch, is an embarrassment
For the three-time champions, who had reached the final in six of the last seven tournaments, to lose all three games was hugely disappointing, as well as a big surprise. The 5-0 thrashing at the hands of Japan was bad enough and was certainly the Saudis' worst performance since that game against Germany in 2002, but what has happened off the pitch is much worse. Coach Jose Peseiro was fired after one game. His predecessor, Nasser Al Johar was brought back for a fifth stint. After two more defeats, he was sacked. By that time, Prince Sultan Bin Fahd had been fired as the president of the Saudi Football Federation by the king. In years to come, those ten days in Qatar will be used as an example of how not to behave in a tournament.
2. China still don't have what it takes
The group stage has just finished but the players have already arrived back in Beijing - a second successive first-round departure at the tournament. Just like four years ago, it started with a win - a slightly fortuitous 2-0 victory over Kuwait - but it swiftly went downhill. The subsequent 2-0 loss against Qatar made all the difference. The team battled well to draw 2-2 with Uzbekistan but they just weren't good enough. The defence leaked goals and going forward the team lacked creativity and imagination, demonstrated by the fact that all four strikes came as a result of set pieces. China showed splashes of talent but were disappointing overall. The one positive is that the team is young and has time to improve and that coach Gao Hongbo is set to stay in the hotseat.
3. Asia's profile and standard is improving
In the world's media, there has been more attention on the first round of this Asian Cup than on the 2007 and 2004 opening stages combined. International news outlets have given real prominence to the tournament, with the award of the 2022 World Cup to Qatar a push in the right direction. In Asia too, the various nations have embraced it like never before. There may be empty seats in Qatar but the Asian Cup is slowly developing into a significant competition. The standard of football has not been uniformly great but is again on an upward curve with some genuinely great goals and passages of play.
4. Mark Schwarzer is the best goalkeeper in the AFC
Fulham fans may or may not be delighted to know that Mark Schwarzer has been excellent for Australia in goal. His late save from Ki Sung-Yong in the South Korea clash was particularly impressive but he has been steady as a rock throughout. His team needs him. Australia making the last eight, and topping their group, without actually playing well is either the sign of a good team still in second gear or one that has to buck its ideas up if it is to win a first continental title.
5. Jordan show what is possible
Few gave Jordan much of a chance before the tournament started, grouped as they were with Japan and Saudi Arabia - two teams that between them had won six of the previous seven titles. But the boys from Amman made it through and in fine fashion too. If it wasn't for that last minute header from Maya Yoshida of Japan then Jordan would have progressed with maximum points. Well-organised at the back with the fine Amer Shafi between the sticks, Jordan have taken their chances, kept going to the end and deserved the luck they have had.
6. The knockout stage is a competition of two halves
In the top half of the draw you have Australia, Jordan, Uzbekistan and Iraq. Although that contains the defending champions and Asia's number one ranked team, it looks a good deal more comfortable than the other half. That features three of the favourites Japan, South Korea, Iran - as well as the improving host nation Qatar. South Korean fans are hoping that the Taeguk Warriors win it the hard, and best way, by defeating Iran, Japan and Australia.
7. India are not ready
This was more a confirmation than a revelation. For the South Asians it was always going to be about damage limitation and despite losing all three games and conceding 13 goals, most will feel that objective was just about achieved and the fighting spirit on display has pleased fans back home. None of the three games were competitive however. Having India in the tournament added colour and interest but the AFC has to ask itself whether allowing the winners of the AFC Challenge Cup into the Asian Cup is a good idea.
8. North Korea have lost their mojo
Still, India scored three more goals than North Korea. Three games and no goals is a sorry statistic for the team that pushed Brazil all the way in the World Cup just last summer. But this is not the same team that went to South Africa and is certainly not the same team that finished above Saudi Arabia and Iran in qualification. The North Koreans remain difficult to score against - conceding just two in Qatar - but the energy, the bite and the swift counter-attacks are largely absent, even with the new system of two men up front. There are rumours of dressing room disharmony between those two, Hong Yong-Jo and Jong Tae-Se. Whatever the truth, this will be a tournament quickly forgotten in Pyongyang.
9. It really is up for grabs
Of the eight that remain, only a Jordanian win would be a major shock while a Qatari triumph would be a minor one. The others are all in with a serious shout. Australia are hard to beat and Japan are improving after a slow start. Uzbekistan have been one of the stand-outs and have the ability to progress further while whichever team emerges from the South Korea and Iran quarter-final will fancy their chances.
10. Big name players are impressing
It is good for Asia and the competition that many of the stars are shining. Park Ji-Sung has continued his fine Manchester United form to the tournament, Server Djeparov has been inspiring Uzbekistan to impressive performances, Harry Kewell has reminded what he can do when fit, Javad Nekounam has been steady as a rock. If Keisuke Honda can reproduce his World Cup form then fans in Qatar really will be in for a treat.