Australia pulled away from Kuwait, 4-1, yesterday, but the secret star of the 2015 Asian Cup’s opener was Matty Ryan, whose standout performance in the Socceroos’ goal helped mask the possibility that the hosts just aren’t that good. Now, 24 hours later, strong goalkeeping looks like THE early trend at the AFC’s championship, with three 1-0s on the tournament’s second day, keeping Asia’s No. 1s center stage.
Consider the performance of birthday boy Wang Delei, whose second half save on Naif Hazazi’s penalty kick kept China scoreless with Saudi Arabia. Just under 20 minutes later, Yu Hai’s speculative free kick caromed off a Saudi defender and into goal, giving the Chinese a 1-0 win. Without star attacker Nasser Al-Shamrani, the Saudis were all bark and no bite, giving fans little indication it can survive the group.
Elsewhere in Group B, favorites Uzbekistan went into intermission scoreless after a controlling but tepid half failed to produce a breakthrough against North Korea. A more domineering performance in the second half saw Igor Sergeev snap a headed goal home just after the hour mark, but thanks to Ri Myong-guk in the North Korean net, the underdogs nearly stole a point in stoppage time. Ignatiy Nesterov’s late save on a Pak Kwang-ryong header allowed an uneven Uzbekistan to go top of its group.
Just as in Sydney, today’s opener in Canberra saw the game’s best performance come for the losing keeper. Wigan Athletic’s Ali “Remember Him” Al-Habsi, in goal for Oman, kept the knockout round hopefuls close to South Korea. Only Cho Young-cheol’s first international goal just before halftime set the Group A adversaries apart. Just before full time, Oman nearly stole a point with a chance that was turned onto the cross bar, allowing a superior if unconvincing South Korea to preserve its result.
Will the 2015 Asian Cup be the tournament of the goalkeeper? Probably not. Today’s matches gave us the perfect combination of teams willing to dictate against talented shot-stoppers. In each, we had one team, usually without a stud goal-scorer, controlling the ball, making it more likely a quantity versus quality dilemma would play out.
That’s manna for an opposing goalkeeper, but it’s not necessarily a formula for victory. Nor is it a pattern that will persist in the knockout round, when the matchups will even out.
Off the field
Australia having opening day to itself made it difficult to answer one of the tournament’s major questions: Would the games draw? Of course fans are going to turn out for the host nation on day one, but Asia is a huge place filled with a number of small countries. Would fans travel to such a remote place to support their team? And how many neutral Aussies could be expected to turn out for, say, Uzbekistan and North Korea?
Day two’s answers were encouraging. In the capital, where there were the greatest fears about drawing decent crowds, 12,552 showed up at Canberra Stadium to see South Korea and Oman. Uzbekistan and North Korea also drew over 12 thousand (12,078) at ANZ Stadium in Sydney, while 12,557 showed up to see China and Saudi Arabia in Melbourne.
With the possible exception of South Korea, none of those teams are draws, yet the crowds were encouraging, particularly given the weather:
We’re now set for two games-per day, with Group C taking the field on Sunday:
United Arab Emirates vs. Qatar – 1:00 a.m. Eastern, Canberra Stadium, Canberra
Iran vs. Bahrain – 3:00 a.m. Eastern, AAMI Park, Melbourne
Iran, Asia’s current Meaningless FIFA Rankings champion, it the heavy favorite in this group, but UAE harbors hopes of making a semifinal run.
Where they stand
Shout out to Wikipedia, again.