- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 26, 2014

SYDNEY (AP) - Australia’s prospects of winning the Asian Cup on home soil in 2015 became significantly more difficult when the Socceroos were grouped with 2002 World Cup semifinalist South Korea during Wednesday’s draw at the Sydney Opera House.

The Australians will play Kuwait in the tournament opener on Jan. 9 in Melbourne and Oman on Jan. 13, but it’s the clash against two-time champion South Korea in Brisbane on Jan. 17 that highlights the first stage of the tournament in Group A.

The top four teams were seeded into different groups, with South Korea slipping to No. 5 in the region ahead of the draw and, in turn, becoming the team to avoid from the second pot of nations.

“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 coach Ange Postecoglu said. “That first game against Kuwait 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.”

Defending champion Japan was drawn into Group D with 2007 Asian champion Iraq, Jordan and the winners of the eight-team 2014 AFC Challenge Cup to be held in the Maldives in May.

“We played against both teams in the World Cup qualifiers and both matches were tough, so I can expect it is going to be tough again,” Japan Football Association general secretary Hara Hiromi said.

Uzbekistan will face three-time champion Saudi Arabia, China and North Korea in an even-looking Group B.

“I know Uzbekistan very well because I have seen them many times in Qatar and they are a strong team to play but I think this group everyone can lose points against anyone, so it’s open,” said China coach Alain Perrin.

Perrin also hopes the large expat Chinese population in Australia will turn out to support his team.

“I think with the number of expats in Australia, it will be like playing at home,” he said.

Iran, the region’s top-ranked team, was placed with the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Bahrain in a politically tense group. The UAE and Bahrain earlier this month withdrew their ambassadors from Doha in protest at Qatar’s region-wide support of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Iran coach Carlos Queiroz the group was balanced in sporting terms, with the geo-political issues adding “a lot of tension and emotion.”

“Three years ago Iran was fourth or fifth in Asia and today is the No. 1 country,” Queiroz said. “I don’t think it is realistic position because Japan and South Korea are still in front of all the other countries in my opinion in Asia. But results are results, and it feels good to be there in that position.”

Five host cities - Brisbane, Canberra, Melbourne, Newcastle and Sydney - will host the 32 games over 23 days culminating in the Jan. 31 final at Stadium Australia, the main venue for the Sydney 2000 Olympics.

Earlier, the Asian Cup trophy was taken by boat along the harbor before being handed over at the Opera House by former Asian Cup winners, Japan’s Takashi Fukunishi and Younis Mahmoud of Iraq, to former Socceroo Brett Emerton shortly before the draw ceremony.

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