The last round of Group B fixtures have thrown up a tasty clash between Saudi Arabia and Uzbekistan. Both sides have been beaten by Alain Perrin’s resilient China, who in the process have overcome their own mini-hoodoo by securing qualification into the knockout phase after failures in the previous two tournaments.
One point against the already eliminated North Korea will see China top Group B and will see them clash with either the hosts Australia or in all probability the thus far disappointing Taeguk Warriors, South Korea in the quarters.
Saudi Arabia and Uzbekistan will meet in their final Group B encounter with the latter knowing that a win is the minimum requirement.
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Saudi Arabia 4 North Korea 1
4-1 is turning into a rather popular scoreline at the AFC Asian Cup. This is the third time the tournament has seen this result. Whilst the score suggests a stroll for Saudi Arabia they did have to contend with an early scare when the North Koreans took the lead when Saudi goalkeeper, Waleed Abdullah, could only push Pak Kwang-ryong’s shot into the path of Ryang Yong-gi who gleefully slotted the ball home in the 12th minute. The strike marked North Korea’s first Asian Cup final goal in 23 years, and it was a deserved lead.
In a marked contrast to their opening tussle against Uzbekistan the North Koreans started with aggression and attacking intent. Jong Il-gwan underlined the approach by getting booked within the opening 15 seconds. It was always going to be a hard task to keep up the tempo, especially given North Korea’s lack of technical finesse and they were made to pay when the Saudi’s picked up a loose pass on the left of midfield and neatly worked a chance for Naif Hazazi to equalize in the 37th minute. It was a moment of relief for Hazazi, who missed a penalty against China in the previous game, and the Saudi front man would prove to be a key figure for his side against the North Koreans.
The Saudis stunned the North Koreans after the break courtesy of a quick fire brace from Mohammad Al-Sahlawi in the 52nd and 54th minute. The striker turned in a deflected cross to net his first before benefitting from a moment of ineptitude by the North Korean defense to out his side 3-1 up.
Saudi Arabia, the Green Falcons, were later given a penalty in the 77th minute after Ri Yong-jik had handled on the line. Nawaf Al-Abed took over penalty taking duties but saw his strike superbly saved by Ri Myong-guk. Unfortunately for the luckless goalkeeper the ball rebounded off the post and trickled invitingly along the line for Al-Abed to fire in.
It was a spirited performance by both teams but in the end a combination of North Korean fatigue and Saudi class saw the game swing in the Green Falcons’ favour. Saudi coach Cosmin Olăroiu, who came in for criticism after the defeat against China, opted to play a more attacking game and was rewarded with a win, breaking Saudi Arabia five-match Asian Cup losing streak.
In fairness the Saudis only needed to wait for the North Koreans to run out of steam before asserting their authority, but the Romanian coach should be concerned with how easily rattled his team became as a result of the fast start of the opposition. He will be pleased though with how well his side dealt with transitions of possession, especially when going forward.
Olăroiu now has a decision to make, does he revert to the conservative game plan or once again let his side play a more attacking game? The Green Falcons certainly seem more comfortable playing a more expansive style but will that be enough against an unpredictable Uzbekistani side?
China 2 Uzbekistan 1
China needs to be less polite, well on the pitch at any rate, according to Alain Perrin. His side certainly weren’t accommodating in this match displaying an inner steel that has been lacking in recent years. The French coach once again masterminded another surprise with his team coming from a goal down to beat the infuriatingly inconsistent Uzbekistanis.
The Chinese started off brightly but the Uzbeks wrested a measure of control back and took the lead in somewhat fortuitous fashion when Odil Ahmedov, who did well to create a chance for himself, saw his 22nd minute shot loop in after it was deflected by Wu Xi.
In years gone by China would have lowered their heads and accepted their fate but this group weren’t willing to give up without a fight. They were aided by some uncertain and hesitant goalkeeping from Uzbekistan’s Ignatiy Nesterov in the immediate build-up to China’s 55th equalizer. That said the equalizer would not have come had it not been for striker Gao Lin, whose awareness to pick out teammate Wu Xi with an outrageous flick is one of the moments of the tournament so far.
Perrin also made a crucial intervention in the second half as his side were searching for the winner. He brought on Sun Ke for Gao Lin and his substitution paid off when the former was afforded too much space by the Uzbeks, allowing him to strike from the edge of the box.
With Jiang Zhipeng, who missed a good chance to make it three, marshalling his defense solidly the Chinese were never in danger of losing the game.
Whisper it but China are building up momentum and victory against North Korea will see them advance into the knockouts in buoyant mood. A semi-final spot is not beyond them, especially if they face the underwhelming South Korea. Perrin is too canny an operator to get carried away though and won’t be looking beyond the next game
As for Uzbekistan they seemingly flatter to deceive at each and every opportunity. Mirjalol Qosimov, the head coach, surprisingly took off his most inventive player Server Djeparov and his side didn’t look like creating too much after that substitution was made. His team now go into a must-win game against Saudi Arabia and there’s no guarantee that his side will go through.
Uzbekistan and Saudi Arabia are two of the more technically accomplished sides in the tournament so it’ll depend on how each coach will look to set their teams up. With so much at stake expect a cagey affair to begin with but if the Uzbekistanis fail to score an early goal they will need to open up and Saudi Arabia are more than capable of hitting on the break with devastating effect.
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