We’re starting to see the knock-out phase of the AFC Asian Cup take shape as two more teams qualified for the quarterfinals.
Both the United Arab Emirates and Iran extended their stay in the competition at the expense of Bahrain and Qatar respectively. The pair face-off in their final Group C match to determine who’ll top the table with the winners in all likelihood avoiding a clash with defending champions Japan in the quarters.
The players who lit up the games were Omar Abdulrahman for the United Arab Emirates and the Iranian Messi Sadar Azmoun. Abdulrahman is stamping his class on the tournament whilst Azmoun produced a sublime piece of skill to score the winner for Iran.
Once again the crowd support has been strong with the Australian public really taking to the tournament. Even the ‘North Korean Ultras’ have been getting in on the act.
United Arab Emirates 2 – 1 Bahrain
The United Arab Emirates created Asian Cup history by scoring the fastest goal the tournament has ever seen. Ali Mabkhout latched on to a pass from Omar Abdulrahman 14-seconds into the match to give his side the perfect start. It set the tone for the first half as Bahrain sought to get a foothold into the game after suffering the early set-back. The UAE had a golden opportunity to go two goals to the good as Mohamed Abdulrahman slipped a ball through for the onrushing Ahmed Khalil but his effort rebounded off the foot of the Bahraini post.
That miss proved costly as Bahrain equalized courtesy of star striker the Nigerian-born Jaycee John who headed Faouzi Aaish’s corner in the 26thminute. Throughout the game John looked to be Bahrain’s most likely source of goals.
The United Arab Emirates did seem vulnerable to crosses and that problem did not escape the notice of their coach Madhi Ali. He adjusted his side’s tactics to shut down the space from wide areas and prevent the Bahrainis from peppering box of the UAE keeper, Majed Nasser, with pacy crosses. Ali may look to make his team a little more compact in the final game against Iran as Team Melli have the talent to create opportunities from out wide and in central areas.
The UAE did have a stroke of good fortune with their winning goal when the luckless Bahraini captain Mohamed Ali Hussain rose to divert Amer Abdulrahman’s free-kick past his keeper in the 73rd minute for an own goal.
The UAE held on and have made it to the knockout stage of the AFC Asian Cup for the first time in 19 years. The victory itself was doubly historic as it marked the first time the UAE managed to win their opening two group games in any Asian Cup tournament. The Emiratis will go into the game against Iran with no pressure as the weight of expectation will rest on the Iranian’s shoulders. If Madhi Ali’s side can keep his side solid defensively then there is a chance of causing a mini-upset especially if Omar Abdulrahman continues his fine form in the tournament.
Iran 1 – 0 Qatar
Once again the support Iran enjoyed was so vociferous it really did feel like they were playing at home. The atmosphere if Iran and Australia meet would be quite simply electric. If all goes to form the two should meet in the semifinals.
Though Iran are one of the pre-tournament favourites their preparations for the Asian Cup has been a source of frustration for their coach Carlos Queiroz. Since the World Cup Iran have only played twice in the run-up to the Asian Cup which is far from ideal. The lack of match practice did seem to tell as Team Melli initially struggled to get up to speed against the Qataris.
Indeed the hosts of the 2022 World Cup caused a few problems with their passing and movement but lacked a cutting edge to trouble the Iranians who slowly grew into the game. Iran’s most dangerous effort came towards the end of the first half when Javad Nekounam’s towering header was cleared off the line with the Qatari keeper Qasem Burhan beaten all ends up.
It’s surprising that the Iranians didn’t try to test the Qatari keeper more as he was short on confidence and floundering when balls were crossed into the box. Whilst the Iranian’s especially in the first half were slow to transition play one can’t ignore the defensive effort that the Qataris put in to nullify the Iranians.
Carlos Queiroz opted to start Sadar Azmoun ahead of Reza Ghoochannejhad and that decision paid off handsomely as the forward executed what’s been described excitedly across the internet as a ‘Bergkamp-esque’ piece of skill to beat his man before stabbing the ball home beyond Bursan.
The genesis of the goal though came from a poor throw-out from Burhan who immediately put his teammate under pressure. The industrious Andranik Teymourian was alert to the potential opportunities and won the ball back. The Iranians in the second half started to press for the ball higher up the pitch and that played a big role in the opening goal
Teymourian set Ashkan Dejagah away who in turn played the ball in. Azmoun let the ball run across his body fooling the onrushing marker with a delicate back heel and spin before tucking the ball home. It was a moment of sheer class.
Queiroz likened the strike to another Dutch striker, Ruud van Nistelrooy, and justified the former Manchester United assistant manager’s decision to start Azmoun. The Iranians themselves grew into the game as the match went on and eventually their talent shone through.
Iran now need a positive result to win the group but they’ll be in confident mood as they approach their match against the UAE. As for Qatar the long road for Russia 2018 beckons and there’s still a fair bit of work that needs to be done if the Qataris are to qualify for their first ever World Cup.
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