India coach Bob Houghton believes the current Asian Cup is more competitive than ever, and says it is largely down to the improving fortunes of teams from the Gulf region. The tournament in Qatar has witnessed a number of upsets, including the shock first round elimination of three time champions Saudi Arabia after consecutive losses to Jordan and Syria.
Uzbekistan, Qatar and Iran are all assured of a place in the last eight, with traditional powerhouses Japan, South Korea and regional newcomers Australia poised to join them.
Houghton, whose India team has already been eliminated, said Asian football was on the up, despite none of the teams from the continent making it beyond the last 16 at last year's World Cup in South Africa.
"I was kind of hoping (the Asian teams) would do better at the last World Cup, particularly Australia," said Houghton, whose side face South Korea in their final Group C game on Tuesday. "I look at Korea playing against Australia and think to myself, that's an outstanding team. Maybe they'll achieve more as time goes on."
The well travelled English coach pointed to the growing trend of naturalising foreign born players as one of the reasons for the rejuvenation of teams from the Gulf region. "The Gulf countries have improved a lot," he said. "They now have so many Africans and non Gulf players. They're much more physical and difficult to beat".
"Saudi Arabia use to dominate in the region, but now the other Gulf countries have caught them up, mainly because of the importation of African players."