Soccer-India eye knockout rounds with Japan, Australia expected to dominate

FILE PHOTO: Soccer Football - Women
FILE PHOTO: Soccer Football - Women's World Cup - Round of 16 - Norway v Australia - Allianz Riviera, Nice, France - June 22, 2019 Australia players pose for a team group photo before the match REUTERS/Eric Gaillard

By Michael Church

HONG KONG (Reuters) - The largest-ever field will vie for a first prize of $1 million and the bonus of World Cup berths when the Women's Asian Cup kicks off on Thursday, yet for all the changes the final outcome is expected to have a familiar feel.

Twelve nations - four more than in Jordan four years ago - have travelled to India for the finals, the first time the nation has hosted the quadrennial tournament since 1979.

Back-to-back defending champions Japan and Australia, the runners-up to the Nadisheko in both 2014 and 2018, are widely expected to dominate once again, potentially leaving the other 10 nations looking for consolation prizes.

Hopes for a host nation that has slipped behind the region's best since runners-up finishes in 1979 and 1983 will be limited but, with the tournament doubling a qualifier for the World Cup, sights have been set on the knockout rounds.

"We have spent a long time working together with more than 200 sessions - tactical, technical, physical," said head coach Thomas Dennerby.

"We feel we are ready. Our target is to qualify for the quarter-finals, and we think it's a realistic target."

India have been drawn in Group A, which they share with eight-time champions China, three-time winners Chinese Taipei and tournament debutants Iran.

Iran are Asia's dominant force in women's futsal but the country had never before featured at the Asian Cup before booking their finals spot ahead of Jordan and Bangladesh in qualifying.

"Everyone knows that the women's football team in Iran has just been formed and we cannot solve all the shortcomings and problems in a short time," said coach Maryam Irandoost.

"But I must say that we are all trying to solve these problems with more work, efforts and training harder."

Prize money is being offered for the first time, although perhaps the greater goal for many will be to secure a World Cup place, with the Asian Cup doubling as a qualifier for next year's finals.

Australia will co-host that tournament with New Zealand, securing a berth at the finals as a result, and Asia has been granted five additional spots plus two playoff places.

The Matildas will headline Group B, where they will take on Thailand, who qualified for the 2019 World Cup, the Philippines and Indonesia.

Japan, meanwhile, face South Korea in Group C, which also features Myanmar and a Vietnam side that has been hit by a late COVID-19 outbreak that left their involvement in the competition in doubt.

(Reporting by Michael Church, Editing by Christian Radnedge)

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