The AFC Asian Cup got into its groove with five matches played over the weekend.
One of the pre-tournament favorites, Iran, eased their way to victory. The United Arab Emirates enjoyed a comfortable start, Uzbekistan notched up a win whilst China provided the tournament’s first real surprise downing Saudi Arabia.
Programming note: For viewers in the United States, the tournament is being shown exclusively on One World Sports and DishWorld. Even if you don’t have a TV subscription to One World Sports, you can access the channel via online streaming service DishWorld for $10/month. Sign up for DishWorld via their website.
UAE 4 – 1 Qatar:
The tournament’s second 4-1 victory saw the United Arab Emirates comfortably dispatch Middle Eastern neighbours Qatar. The Qataris took the lead with an exquisitely volleyed lob from Khalfan Ibrahim, unfortunately that was as good as it got for Ibrahim and his side.
A pair of braces from Ahmed Khalil and Ali Mabkhout saw the UAE stamp their mark on the game. Though the score line was comprehensive the Emiratis were helped by the hapless keeping of Qatari goalie Qasem Burhan.
Mahdi Ali, the head coach of the UAE, was happy with the display from his side singling out Omar Abdulrahman for praise. However he did acknowledge that there’s room for improvement and will hope to put on an even better display in their next match against Bahrain. A victory will almost certainly see the UAE go through to the knock-out phase.
Qatari coach Djamel Belmadi bemoaned his team’s performance stating that there were “no positives” he could take from the match. It doesn’t get much easier for his side as their next match is against Asia’s top ranked team Iran.
The next few years will be crucial for Qatari football. They need to have a good Asian Cup to use as a springboard for qualification for the 2018 World Cup in Russia. If Qatar fail to make it to Russia they will suffer the ignominy of being the first nation to play in a World Cup without having qualified beforehand.
Saudi Arabia 0 – 1 China:
It would be incorrect to label this an upset but it is fair to say that not many pundits saw this result coming.
Saudi Arabia, one of the fancied teams in the Asian Cup were shorn of the injured Nasser Al-Shamrani, the current Asian Footballer of the Year, but even so they had a golden opportunity to take the lead against the Chinese after Naif Hazazi was fouled by Ren Hang. The Saudi forward picked himself up to take the penalty but his lazy effort was saved by Wang Dalei. Strictly speaking the penalty should have been retaken as the Chinese keeper was a couple of steps off his line when the spot-kick was struck.
Wang Dalei can’t take all of the credit though for his penalty heroics. He asked 12-year old ball boy Stephen White which direction to dive and was advised to go to his left. Since then White has become a minor celebrity in the Chinese media.
China then enjoyed a huge spot of good fortune as Yu Hai’s free kick in the 81st minute was deflected in.
China are rather fortunate to be playing in the Asian Cup. They only secured their berth in Australia in by finishing as the best third-place team. Zhang Xizhe’s penalty in a 3-1 defeat against Iraq in their final qualifying match was enough to edge the Chinese through who scraped ahead of Lebanon by a single goal. Sometimes a little luck is required in international tournaments and form in qualification is no definitive indicator as to how a team will perform in main event. China will go into the next game with some confidence but they face a strong Uzbekistani team. China are well aware of recent history too as they won their opening games in 2007 and 2011 Asian Cups only to be dumped out in the group stages. Another clean sheet will be the minimum requirement for Alain Perrin’s side.
Saudi Arabia do have a chance to put things right against North Korea to set-up a potential winner takes all clash against Uzbekistan in their final group game. Romanian coach Cosmin Olăroiu conservative tactics have been criticized and he will need to take the shackles off if Saudi Arabia are to fulfill their potential. Though Naif Hazazi missed his penalty the striker didn’t receive much support upfront.
Olăroiu’s decision to leave out Taiser Al-Jassim and Yahya Al Shehri was controversial and he exacerbated the situation by bringing on the latter with a minute of normal time left. The substitution prompted an Arabic football pundit to tweet “what is the point of bringing on Al Shehri with 60 seconds to go?”
Uzbekistan 1 – 0 North Korea
The Uzbeks were the better side over the course of the game but they will be hoping to be more clinical as the tournament progresses if they wish to bring the cup back to Uzbekistan. After spurning a number of opportunities, Igor Sergeev rose in the 62nd minute to head his side into the lead. However they owe their goalkeeper Ignatiy Nesterov immensely after the keeper superbly denied Pak Kwang-ryong a last gasp equalizer.
Mirjalol Qosimov, Uzbekistan’s head coach wasn’t overly concerned though and believes that the next match against China will see a better performance from his team:
“We wanted to score many goals in the game but it was the first match and we missed many chances in both the first and second half. But we’ll work on it and I think in the next game we’ll be better.”
As for North Korea they will need to open up (insert your own gag here) to be in with a shout of qualifying for the knock-out phase. Coach Jo Tong-sop believes his men can do the business but admitted that the tactics for their opening match, even after going behind, didn’t yield the desired result:
“Before the match we had planned to concentrate on defending and then counter-attack to score and win the game. But even though in the middle of the match, we gave away one goal, I still wanted to keep this strategy but it didn’t work very well.”
South Korea 1 – 0 Oman
If any Asian giant requires a good tournament then surely it is South Korea. After an insipid World Cup they need to bounce back and give their passionate fans something to cheer about. Though South Korea ran out 1-0 victors they will probably be only satisfied with the three points. New coach Uli Stielike had instructed his side to pepper the Omani goal with shots and this approach eventually paid dividends as Cho Young-cheol was on hand to turn in the rebound after Ali Al-Habsi parried Koo Ja-Cheol’s effort.
Like Uzbekistan, South Korea had their goalkeeper Kim Jin-hyeon to thank for keeping the score at 1-0. Kim produced a wonderful save to tip Amad Al-Hosni’s header on to the bar.
Though happy with the result Stielike was concerned with his players seeming inability to cope with the level of expectation placed upon them:
“We were favorites before the game because the expectation in Korea is very high. But as a result the players feel a big responsibility so don’t ask a lot for the ball.”
It’s a rather worrying assessment by Stielike as South Korea possess assured ball-players like Swansea’s Ki Sung-yueng and Son Heung-min.
That said Stielike preferred having a tough opening start and was satisfied that his team adapted to the game situation and improved in the second half.
Next up is Kuwait. Once again the South Koreans will be favorites but it remains to be seen if they can handle the expectation in their second group match.
His counterpart Paul Le Guen was happy with the performance of his Omani side if not the result. The former Lyon and Rangers boss has been head coach of Oman since 2011 and they have benefited from the relative stability turning into a tidy outfit.
“I think more and more we are getting to the same level to compete with teams like Korea Republic. When you only concede one goal against Korea you can be satisfied because against such a team that’s not nothing, it is proof that we are on the right path and we are improving. Although I am never totally satisfied when we lose, my players gave their best; they fought hard on the pitch. It was hard work so congratulations to Korea Republic team, they deserved to win.”
A tough match against the hosts, Australia, is Le Guen’s primary concern. On paper a result seems beyond his side but then again football isn’t played on paper.
Iran 2 – 0 Bahrain
Asia’s top ranked side, Iran, started off comfortably enough recording a 2-0 win over Bahrain. At points it appeared like a home game for Team Melli such was the support in Melbourne for them. Dangerous going forward and solid at the back this was an accomplished performance by Iran. No doubt they were buoyed by Carlos Queiroz’s decision to extend his tenure when it looked as if he’d leave the post after the World Cup.
Ehsan Hajsafi got the Iranian campaign off to a spectacular start scoring arguably the goal of the tournament thus far. Masoud Shojaei turned in a corner to put his side two goals to the good though the Bahrainis will be asking questions about the marking that led Shojaei’s strike.
That said Bahrain weren’t exactly pushovers starting the game on the front foot and testing Reza Haghighi in the Iranian goal. However Bahrain’s coach did concede that Iran’s nous was key to his side’s defeat:
“We started the first game well. We were focused, but the experience was important in this game and Iran have a lot of experienced and professional players and that is what changed this match.”
Their next game is against the United Arab Emirates in what looks to be an interesting encounter.
Iran will hope to reward their fans even more when they take on Qatar. Andranik Teymourian said as much stating:
“We made all our supporters very happy and I hope we can make them happy again in the second game against Qatar.”
It would take a brave person to predict that Team Melli will emerge from the clash against Qatar with less than three points.
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