Football: Australia look to open Asian Cup with a bang

Australian football captain Mile Jedinak (center, #15) leads the team's final training session ahead of the Asian Cup in Melbourne on Jan 8, 2015. -- PHOTO: AFP
Australian football captain Mile Jedinak (center, #15) leads the team's final training session ahead of the Asian Cup in Melbourne on Jan 8, 2015. -- PHOTO: AFP

MELBOURNE (AFP) - Australia will search for championship-winning form and the spark to ignite football interest in the country when they open the Asian Cup against Kuwait on Friday.

A sell-out crowd is expected at Melbourne Rectangular Stadium when Ange Postecoglou's Socceroos stride out for what is the biggest football tournament ever held in Australia.

Excitement has been dampened by the rebuilding team's return of just one win in 11 matches last year, despite some dazzling play at the World Cup.

Australia, under reconstruction after most of their "golden generation" retired, have slumped to 100th in the Fifa rankings, and 10th among Asian teams.

But a strong result against Kuwait would buoy the Socceroos and boost the tournament's profile in a country where other sports are usually preferred.

"Football in Australia is a sleeping giant," said captain and Crystal Palace midfielder Mile Jedinak.

"Obviously it's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Hopefully now everyone else can see, with the country hosting such an important tournament. A lot of it is going to come down to us performing well."

However, Australia may find it tough against defence-minded Kuwait, who unlike the hosts can boast an Asian Cup win after they won the trophy in 1980.

The Gulf state also has a winning head-to-head record against Australia, with five wins and only three defeats in their 10 meetings.

Veteran midfielder Mark Bresciano warned Australia might not get the kind of "flowing games and attacking games" in which they flourished in Brazil.

"This time around we're going to be coming up against other countries that play in a different style and are going to try and stop us playing that attacking football ourselves," he said.

"We are going to try and play the best of our ability and create as many opportunities as we can. But we know what we're going to be coming up against. For us, they are going to be tougher opponents to play against."

New Kuwaiti coach Nabil Maaloul, appointed after the team's nightmare Gulf Cup campaign last November, tried to deflect the pressure onto the hosts.

"It will be difficult for the Australian team as it's the opening match," he said. "I hope the shock of a new coach will give my team a boost. We have a proud history in the Asian Cup and there is no reason why we can't do well."

Four-time winners and holders Japan are the pre-tournament favourites, despite a match-fixing case swirling around their coach, and Carlos Queiroz's Iran are also top contenders.

South Korea are looking to end a 55-year title drought, but the draw has been unkind to 2011 semi-finalists Uzbekistan, who are likely to face the Koreans or Australia if they reach the quarter-finals.

Among the minnows, Palestine have overcome major hurdles to qualify for the first time, and North Korea are trying to escape the group stage for the first occasion since 1980.

Australia joined the Asian Football Confederation in 2006 but have yet to lift the region's most coveted trophy, after being edged out by Japan in a gripping final in 2011.