2015 Asian Cup, Day 15: There’ll be a new champion of Asia

It took a major shock for the most entertaining game of the 2015 Asian Cup to play second fiddle in our update. But considering the tournament favorites and defending champions were knocked out of the competition in Friday’s second quarterfinal, the Iraq-Iran West Asia derby will have to wait. The new, wide open landscape of AFC’s quadrennial championship deserves a few words first, particularly after missed tries from Japan’s two biggest stars left the Samurai Blue eliminated two rounds too soon, falling to the United Arab Emirates 5-4 in Friday’s penalty shootout after a 1-1 draw.

The upset becomes even more remarkable when you consider how it happened. This wasn’t the case of an upset UAE redefining perceptions of the underdog. Instead, Japan outshot the Emiratis 35 to 3. It put eight shots on target to the UAE’s two. Twenty of Japan’s shots came from inside the box, and Japan had 68.1 percent of the game’s possession. Yet thanks to a ninth minute goal from Ali Mabkhout (his fourth of the tournament), UAE held the lead for 72 minutes in regulation, with only a late goal from young Japanese midfielder Gaku Shibasaki allowing the heavy favorites to survive into extra time.

Yet that effort, as well as the pressure the team maintained over the extra 30 minutes, looked like it would go for naught when Kiesuke Honda skied the first attempt of the tiebreaker shootout. Both sides made their next two kicks before Emirati midfielder Khamis Esmaeel allowed Japan to pull even, a status the teams took into an extra round of kicks.

There, Borussia Dortmund midfielder Shinji Kagawa, curiously excluded from the team’s list of five guaranteed takers, put his try off the base of the left post. When Ismail Ahmen beat Eiji Kawashima with the next kick, UAE had dethroned the defending champions, in perhaps the most unlikely manner possible.

Japan came into the game undefeated, without allowing a single goal in the competition. Coming off a controlling group stage finale against Jordan, Javier Aguirre’s team looked to be ascending. And over the course of 120 minutes against UAE, it showed why many consider it the best team in Asia.

But then soccer happened. We’ve seen it so often before: an early goal, the inability to breakthrough, one team tightening up. It’s a formula that’s cost better teams than the Japanese, and that’s created more surprise victors than UAE.

It’s also the nature of the game, the nature of knockout competition that sends the Samurai Blue home. And it’s the nature of the resourcefulness and tenacity of UAE, who could have easily wilted under the pressure, that means Asia will have a new champion.

Unfortunately, the day’s first game is not as easy to bring to words:

Let’s not even try. Instead, let’s just note:

  • Iran came into the game perfect, having yet to allow a goal, while Iraq finished second in the competition’s thinnest group. Team Melli were big favorites, but …
  • because of the styles of the two teams — particularly Iran, a team that’s developed a “defend first, and maybe score a goal” approach — this game looked like a potential rotten egg.
  • Iran seemed set to fulfill expectations when it went up in the 24th minute through Sardar “Iranian Messi” Azmoun, but …
  • in the 43rd minute, Mahrdad Pooladi a mistake that may have cost Iran the match. Carrying a yellow, the fullback left a foot in on a ball smothered by Iraqi goalkeeper Jalal Hassan. Whether he got a second yellow for that or flopping to the ground after Hassan jumped up and made contact is unclear. But Pooladi was still off, with the most controversial official of the tournament (Ben Williams) having apparently forgotten he’d booked the defender 22 minutes earlier.
  • Eleven minutes after halftime, Iraq tied the game though Ahem Yasin, an equalizer that would sent the game into extra time.
  • Three minutes into the extra session, Iraqi legend Younis Mahmoud gave his team its first lead, but …
  • before intermission, Morteza Pouraliganji had equalized for Iran.
  • Iraq took a second lead four minutes from the final whistle through Dhurgham Ismail, who converted from the spot. But Iran came back again, with a scrum in front of the Iraqi goal ending with a Reza Ghoochannejhad goal in the 119th minute.
  • Both teams missed their first kicks of the shootout before reeling off six straight, a run interrupted when substitute Vahid Amiri hit the right upright. With the ensuing kick, Salan Shakir ended the most dramatic match of the tournament, finishing into the right of goal to give the 2007 champions the day’s first major upset.

Bullet points are a copout, but for one of the wildest games in Asian Cup history, they’re appropriate. From the early send-off, to four extra time goals, to a penalty shootout that went into the eighth round, the game defied any kind of logical narrative. It’s only appropriate that the chaos sent another of the tournament’s strongest sides home.

Off the field

The moment Japan was bounced from the tournament, conversation began about the future of Javier Aguirre, the Samurai Blue coach who entered the tournament mired in controversy. But after today’s disappointment, it’s difficult to imagine the Mexican coach surviving the lingering cloud of a match-fixing scandal.

That scandal will see Aguirre and former players from Real Zaragoza (including Manchester United’s Ander Herrera) answer accusations they delivered money to Levante players to help secure the club’s place in Spain’s Primera División at the end of the 2010-11 season. If found guilty, the defendants will likely receive long-term suspensions from soccer, though the mere specter had sparked debate as to whether Aguirre should stay in charge of Japan.

That debate died down as preparations for Australia 2015 progressed. As Japan went through its perfect group stage, talk shifted to less speculative concerns, like whether a team that made no changes through the group stage was being worn down.

That criticism resurfaced quickly once Japan’s fate was confirmed, though any critique of Aguirre will have trouble reconciling the dominant display his team managed everywhere except on the scoreboard. It won’t be able to explain why both Honda and Kagawa missed in the shootout, and it won’t be able to write off UAE star midfielder Omar Abdulrahman having his least influential day of the competition. Aguirre, it seems, put his team in position to succeed. And then soccer happened.

Regardless, between the result and the controversy that awaits in a Valencia court, it’s difficult to imagine Aguirre being retained. If he does lose his job, hopefully others will judge the situation for what it is, and not imply he somehow mismanaged his team in Australia.

Tomorrow

Nothing. And there’s nothing the day after that. The next match is early Monday (our time) when South Korea faces Iraq in Sydney. Then, on Tuesday, the hosts get their crack at the dragon slayers, with UEA in Newcastle to take on the Socceroos.

Where they stand

Shout out to Wikipedia, again.

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More

Day 1: Host nations should always cruise
Day 2: Goalkeepers and weather the stars
Day 3: Did our first favorite step forward?
Day 4: The defending champions announce their arrival
Day 5: How can two perfect teams be headed in different directions?
Day 6: The tournament’s first upset puts China into the final eight
Day 7: Iran may be good and unwatchable
Day 8: The new Japan versus Australia (versus Iran) question
Day 9: So much for the Australian juggernaut
Day 10: China imperfect perfection; Uzbekistan’s big gamble
Day 11: Iran’s ugly way too much for Omar Abdulrahman
Day 12: A Japan with peak Keisuke Honda is not going to lose
Day 13: Power ranking all the best things about the 2015 Asian Cup, so far
Day 14: Cahill, Son carry their teams into the semifinals
Day 15: There’ll be a new champion of Asia

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