After a second day that gave us a trio of 1-0s, the 2015 Asian Cup was in desperate need of a few beat downs. As much as we love a Hard Fought Affair, a tournament needs protagonists – some arrogant “lets score five goals against Spain” front-runners. Through two days of AFC’s quadrennial championship, only Australia had served proverbial notice. The hosts’ 4-1 win on the tournament’s opening day had been the only match with more than one goal.
Sunday’s first game seemed destined to change that, with a wide open first half between the United Arab Emirates and Qatar confirming both teams’ lofty ambitions could be more than just fantasy. Qatar, reigning Gulf Cup of Nations champions, was considered the form side coming into a tournament that could make it more than a trite World Cup punchline. Meanwhile, UAE had been very public about its goal of making the semifinals. Tied 1-1 at halftime, both sides looked capable of giving Group C favorite Iran trouble later on.
Then the dam broke. Ahmed Khalil capped his man of the match performance with his second goal, and Ali Mabkhout, leading scorer at the last Gulf Cup of Nations, added a brace of his own. By match’s end, followers of Qatari soccer were left with a slightly inexplicable 4-1 loss:
In the biggest picture, things may not be that bad. Qatar had one terrible half, but if it can put that in the past, there’s still a chance to get out of the group. Only now, instead of potentially playing goal difference onto its side, the Gulf champions will have to beat Iran and Bahrain. But if it does, it will likely go through.
The bigger story is UAE’s. Coming into the competition, talk of a final four appearance seemed possible if slightly hopeful …
Now, that talk has shifted from semifinal potential to title possibilities. Certainty, that shift is premature, but even more than Australia (whose performance against Kuwait was very much a mixed bag), UAE showed a version of itself that could win this tournament. It’s almost too bad there are still five games to go.
Before UAE can believe its title contending dreams, it will have to deal with Group C’s favorites, Iran, whose opening game performance played out every solid-but-dangerous Carlos Queirozian cliché. After being the better side for much of the first half, the 2014 World Cup qualifiers needed a wounded rocket from the edge of the area off the right foot of Ehsan Hajsafi to take a lead into halftime.
In the second half, Bahrain was unable to muster the danger that saw it nearly take the lead in the seventh and 16th minutes. Masoud Shojaei’s second half insurance gave the Iranians a 2-0 win.
The insurance metaphor seems particularly apt for Iran. Often it’s too lazy to define the team in terms of its conservative coach, but in the case of Iran and Queiroz, the cliché holds true. Iran, more talented than most in this tournament, continues to define itself in terms of its defense, almost to the detriment of the rest of its game. It may be a formula for success, and Queiroz almost certainly has a future coaching Greece, but it also leaves you feeling Iran will keep every game closer than it needs to.
The team could dominate its meeting with UAE, be set to hold a 1-0 lead, and be undone by any short span where it’s not itself. As with most Queiroz teams, there seems not appetite to actually create a margin for error. In a group with UAE and Qatar, that could hurt.
Off the field
Attendance continues to be a focal point throughout the first round of games, with Sunday’s turnouts validating that focus. While only 5,513 made it out to see UAE’s statement of purpose in Canberra, over 17 thousand were in attendance in Melbourne for Iran’s opening victory.
Of course, there are a number of factors in play. Canberra was always suspected of being (for lack of a better term) a weak host city. In a game between small countries whose fan bases lie half way across the world, the capital couldn’t produce a decent crowd. Not many places in the world could.
Conversely, the crowd at AAMI Park showed one of the virtues of hosting the competition in Australia. A number of countries throughout Asia (as well as Europe) enjoy strong representation in Oz. As Sunday showed, Iran’s among them. Opening its tournament in one of Australia’s two biggest cities, the Iranians enjoyed a home away from home, and advantage that could help propel it through what could play out as a group of death.
Just as the tournament’s first two days gave us injury concerns for Saudi Arabia’s Nasser Al-Shamrani (out of the tournament) and South Korea’s Lee Chung-yong (expected to be fine after yesterday’s early substitution), Sunday brought bad news on the injury front. After suffering an ankle injury on Friday against Kuwait, Australia’s Mile Jedinak is out of the team’s second match against Oman.
Friday was the hosts’ easiest match of the tournament. If things go wrong against Oman or South Korea, a third place finish in Group A is not out of the question. Granted, it would be a mild stunner, and the tournament will be worse off for losing its hosts, but the Socceroos’ 4-1 win over Kuwait flattered. Losing its best midfielder is a major concern.
Group D plays its first set of games tomorrow, with defending champions Japan opening against the competition’s Cinderellas.
Japan vs. Palestine – 1:00 a.m. Eastern, Newcastle Stadium, Newcastle
Jordan vs. Iraq – 3:00 a.m. Eastern, Brisbane Stadium, Brisbane
Where they stand
Shout out to Wikipedia, again.