SYDNEY - Australia were handed an early challenge against fellow heavyweights South Korea at next year's Asian Cup as the hosts got a difficult draw at a lavish ceremony in Sydney on Wednesday. The Socceroos, who have never won the Asian Cup and are hosting it for the first time, will open the tournament against Kuwait in Melbourne on January 9, and will also face Oman in Group A.
While both Australia and South Korea, who have reached eight consecutive World Cups, will be confident of reaching the knock-out stages, neither team can afford any slip-ups. "It's a challenging group and it will be a tough three games for us, but from our perspective we'll know we'll be well prepared for it," Australia's coach Ange Postecoglou told reporters.
On facing Korea, Postecoglou added:" At some point you have to play a team so our goal is to do well in this tournament. Everyone will be focusing on that and obviously that makes it challenging. "That first game against Kuwait in Melbourne becomes a real critical one. We need to get off to a really strong start and if we can get those three points that will put pressure on the other teams."
Australia, who joined the Asian confederation in 2006, will hope to use their home advantage to win their maiden Asian Cup after missing out 1-0 in extra time to Japan in the 2011 final in Qatar. South Korea missed out on one of the top seedings for the draw and were left as dangerous floaters after they temporarily fell outside Asia's leading four teams on the FIFA rankings. Coach Hong Myung-Bo said his first thoughts were on preparing South Korea for the World Cup in Brazil, starting June, before fully concentrating on the Asian Cup next January. "It's not an easy group, we've been grouped with the home team, as Australia have home advantage, it's going to be a very difficult match," Hong said.
Defending champions Japan were placed in Group D with Jordan, 2007 winners Iraq and the as-yet-unknown winners of this year's AFC Challenge Cup, to be held in the Maldives in May. "We will try our best to meet Australia in the final," said Hara Hiromi, General Secretary of the Japan Football Association, in the absence of national coach Alberto Zaccheroni.
"We won against Australia (in a World Cup qualifier), but away it was tougher, so we can expect it to be the same again." Third-ranked Asian team Uzbekistan were the top seeds in Group B along with three-time winners Saudi Arabia, China and North Korea. "I know Uzbekistan very well because I have seen them many times in Qatar and they are a strong team to play," China's French coach Alain Perrin said.
"But I think in this group everyone can lose points against anyone, so it's open. It's important to have a good start and to create a good spirit and maybe the spirit of the team can make the difference."
Triple Asian champions Iran head Group C, which also includes the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Bahrain, following the draw at Sydney Opera House. "Our group is quite balanced with three Arabic countries, neighbours, rivals, a lot of tension and emotion," Iran's Portuguese coach Carlos Queiroz said. "So it will tough, but I think Iran will have a good chance for a medal, especially for the Asian teams going to the World Cup." Queiroz, who was a former assistant manager under Alex Ferguson at Manchester United and the manager of Real Madrid and Portugal, ends his contract with Iran after the World Cup and will not be leading the team to the Asian Cup.