Going into the 2015 AFC Asian Cup there were a number of teams who had a point to prove. After a disappointing showing at the World Cup in Brazil the likes of Japan, South Korea, Iran and Australia had an opportunity to right a few wrongs and rebuild.
As for the other pretenders within the AFC, the tournament provided an opportunity for emerging nations and sleeping giants to upset the natural order and stamp their mark.
What we saw was a competition that more than delivered in terms of entertainment, thrills and spills. Australia hosted the AFC Asian Cup exceptionally well and the public embraced it fully. The 32-game football festival saw an aggregate attendance of approximately 650,000 or more than 20,000 spectators per match.
The final itself between Australia and South Korea drew a crowd in excess of 76,000.
The 2015 AFC Asian Cup has arguably been the best one yet and whoever organizes the event in 2019 will have quite a task on their hands to top what Australia has delivered.
A fitting final for a fantastic festival of football:
Australia 2 – 1 South Korea (after extra time)
The best two teams in the tournament, South Korea and Australia, made it through to the final and overall the Socceroos were deserved winners of the trophy though they had to do it the hard way.
Indeed it was South Korea, the Taeguk Warriors, who had the better of the first half and it was against the run of play when Massimo Luongo put his team ahead with a stinging long range effort. It was the first goal South Korea conceded all tournament. The strike capped off a great Asian Cup for the Swindon Town man, who was named the most valuable player in the tournament.
Australia were seconds away from being crowned Asian champions in normal time but not for the first time this tournament there was a dramatic twist. Son Heung-min equalized in stoppage time running onto a pass from Ki Sung-yueng to force an extra 30 minutes. The finish by the Bayer Leverkusen star under huge pressure was extremely cool.
However, the effort that the South Koreans put in to find the equalizer seemed to take its toll as the Australians physical fitness started to play a decisive role in the contest. Spare a thought for South Korean left-back, Kim Jin-su who shone for the Taeguk Warriors throughout the tournament. Call it tiredness, a mental lapse or plainly a poor decision but Kim’s choice to back heel the ball right on the edge of his penalty area instead of getting it clear proved to be crucial in the build-up to Australia’s winning goal. The fullback then lost out in a tussle with Tomi Juric, who was brought on for Tim Cahill, and the subsequent cross from the Socceroo forward was palmed out by Kim Jin-hyeon into the path of James Troisi who gratefully tucked the ball home.
The strike was decisive and saw Australia win their first major piece of soccer silverware. The final provided a fitting finale to the international careers of Cahill and Mark Bresciano (both of whom are likely to retire) and capped off a wonderful tournament for the hosts.
Losing in the final is a bitter pill to swallow for the South Koreans but the longer term picture looks rosier for Uli Stielike’s team. South Korea arguably were the most disappointing Asian team in the World Cup so to reach the final of the AFC Asian Cup was quite an achievement and vindication of Stielike’s methods. The German’s understated, yet demanding approach, has sparked the South Koreans and now he has a platform to build and improve his team.
Most of all though, this was a final that showcased the best of the tournament – the teams were aggressive, skilful and determined whilst the match was filled with drama from first whistle to last. It was a great final worthy of a great tournament.
Where to start? Palestine’s Asian Cup campaign was a highlight even though they lost all their matches. They played a positive, entertaining brand of football with Jaka Ihbeisheh scoring the first ever goal in a major football competition for the Palestinians.
The attendance of the tournament was another big plus too. The AFC Asian Cup was well supported as the fans came out in droves. It’s a testament to the supporters and they were treated to some fantastic football games.
Stephen White. “Stephen who?” I hear you ask. He’s China’s lucky charm of course. White was asked by Chinese goalkeeper Wang Dalei which direction to dive after Saudi Arabia were awarded a spot kick. The ball boy told Dalei to dive left, the keeper listened and saved the penalty. The Chinese went on to win the game and a 12-year-old boy from Brisbane, Australia became an instant celebrity in China.
Goals! There were 85 goals in 32 games an average of 2.65 per game, not a bad return. This is also on top of the number of decisive results in the whole tournament. None of the group games yielded a single draw and throughout the entire Asian Cup only four games finished level after 90 minutes.
We’ve been treated to some entertaining, high quality football but the tournament was somewhat lacking a really stand-out striker. Iraq’s Younis Mahmoud provided some flashes of brilliance, whilst Ali Mabkhout topped the goalscoring charts but the lack of a truly clinical goal scorer perhaps highlights one of Asia’s great deficiencies in the world game – the absence of a clinical match winner.
Japan had a thoroughly underwhelming tournament and were knocked out by the UAE in the quarter-finals. Over-elaborate to the point of frustration the Samurai Blue had so much talent to make it all the way but the lack of an aforementioned clinical goalscorer cost them dearly. The cloud of match-fixing also hung over the head of their coach Javier Aguirre, charges that he vehemently denies, and refused to go away. It just wasn’t a good tournament for Japan. Keisuke Honda’s imitation of Jaap Stam and Phil Jones blasting a penalty over the bar at the start of the shoot-out against the UAE summed up Japan in a nutshell.
Iran’s refusal to be beaten is admirable but maybe Carlos Queiroz and his team are thinking of what could have been. If Iran had been a little bit more adventurous or utilized their attacking talent more could Team Melli have gone further in the tournament? Also what must be going through Mehrdad Pooladi’s mind? Say what you will about referee Ben Williams’ handling of the red card incident in Iran’s match against Iraq but Pooladi deliberately and cynically tried to get an opponent sent off. If he had stayed on his feet and not attempted to con the referee he would have remained on the pitch and things could have been oh so different for Iran.
Uzbekistan, so much potential so little end product, will they ever shake off the also-ran tag? The talent is there, the results though are sadly lacking.
Players of the tournament:
Massimo Luongo was named the Most Valuable Player but for sheer class and style one man stood head and shoulders above the rest, Omar Abdulrahman. The United Arab Emirates playmaker was a joy to behold with his understanding and reading of the game. His partnership with Ali Mabkhout was almost telepathic. Abdulrahman currently plies his trade in his homeland but he wouldn’t look out of place in Europe’s top leagues.
China’s Wang Dalei was one of the better goalkeepers in the tournament and possesses the right personality for his side. The likes of Mat Ryan performed wonderfully well for the Socceroos but Wang was crucial in China’s progression to the knock-out phase of the competition. Confident and commanding his area seemed to calm his team and saw them play with a hitherto unknown defiance. Remember it took a (mishit) overhead and an outstanding header from Cahill to beat Wang. The Chinese shot-stopper left the competition with his reputation enhanced.
Younis Mahmoud entered the AFC Asian Cup without being attached to any team and still proved he could cut it at this level. On top of that he scored in the quarter-final clash against arch-rivals Iran and dinked in a Panenka in the penalty shootout against Team Melli for good measure.
Mahmoud’s Iraqi teammate Dhurgham Ismail was a revelation in the Asian Cup emerging as one of the stand-out fullbacks in the tournament. Motoring up and down the left flank the Iraqi fullback was a constant menace going forward whilst keeping his defensive discipline. The 20-year-old also displayed ice-cool nerves to dispatch, not one, but two penalties against Iran. This is a player who has a bright future ahead of him.
Ki Sung-yueng was a key component of Uli Stielike’s South Korea. The Swansea City man was the heartbeat of his team, providing the attacking impetus to dictate the tempo of matches whilst screening his defense effectively. He was a class act from first game to the last.
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