New Asian Cup format gives hope to Vietnam, Philippines

Gabriel Tan Gabriel Tan

FOX Sports Asia football editor Gabriel Tan looks at why the new format of the AFC Asian Cup is good news for Vietnam and Philippines.

With the draw for the 2019 AFC Asian Cup done and dusted, the 24 teams vying for the continent’s biggest prize know the fate that awaits them.

Southeast Asia (the continent and not the ASEAN Football Federation, which also boasts Australia as a member) will have three representatives in United Arab Emirates next January, with Thailand finding themselves in the strongest position of the lot.

Having entered Friday’s draw in Pot 2, the War Elephants will now meet hosts UAE, India and Bahrain in Group A and will be quietly confident of achieving a top-two finish and qualifying automatically for the knockout round.

However, with the Asian Cup featuring 24 teams for the first time in its history, the new format also provides increased optimism to the likes of Vietnam and Philippines than it might have done in previous editions.

Apart from the six group winners and runners-up (a total of 12 teams), the four best-performing third-placed sides will also qualify for the Round of 16.

Put simply, you only have to avoid being the worst and second-worst third-placed teams out of six groups in order to advance.

Evidently, the 12 teams from Pots 1 and 2 – featuring teams such as Japan, Iran, Korea Republic and even Thailand – play at a significantly higher level than the likes of Yemen or DPR Korea – a statement few would refute.

Nonetheless, when it comes to the lower half of the draw, there is actually little differentiating between the countries in Pots 3 and 4.

Could you safely predict the outcome of a clash between India and Bahrain? How about Lebanon and DPR Korea?

Thus, this is firstly good news for a team like Philippines because – while they may have entered the draw in Pot 4 – they can look at their meeting with Kyrgyz Republic as a genuine opportunity to pick up three points in Group C.

Maybe their only opportunity considering the other two opponents that lie in wait are Korea Republic and China.

Likewise in Group D, Vietnam must look to beat Yemen, especially with two former champions in Iran and Iraq to contend with.

Interestingly enough, assuming that the two “stronger” teams in each group will pick up maximum points against the “weaker” two (although that is never always the case and we’ll touch more on that shortly), that equates to three points being the haul a third-placed side should be looking to achieve.

So, should Philippines and Vietnam beat Kyrgyz Republic and Yemen respectively, it would – based on that logic – mean they would have done the first part of the job and it would then go down to goal difference.

Now, as mentioned earlier, there is also the likelihood of a third-placed team causing an upset against either of the two “stronger” teams and picking up at least an additional point. It has happened before and it will happen again in UAE next January.

Four points for a third-placed team would certainly guarantee a last-16 berth.

What does this all mean for Vietnam and Philippines?

Put simply, they must beat the other “weaker two” team. The bigger the winning margin, the better.

Then, they have to keep things really tight against the more-illustrious duo, limiting the damage with one eye on goal difference but also entertaining the prospect of perhaps snatching a draw along the way.

Could Vietnam and Philippines hold Iraq and China respectively? It’s improbable but not impossible.

But even if that scenario does not happen, the new format of the 24-team Asian Cup means that three points does not necessarily mean bidding goodbye to a place in the knockout round.

For that, Southeast Asia’s contenders have plenty to be hopeful about come January 2019.