The 2011 Asian Cup is Japan’s for the taking. Simply play with ten men for the last half-an-hour. And if they meet Uzbekistan, score three – as the Uzbeks appear contractually obliged to score twice in every game, regardless of the context or opposition. Apart from Group D, the deadly dull, death warmed-up, death of football Group of Death (I hope I haven’t missed anything out), the competition warmed up nicely in the last set of matches. Thanks to Jordanian spanners in the works in particular, every group was up for grabs going into round three.
The canny (lucky?) scheduling of the matches between each group’s two favourites also helped, with all of them out of the way before the last round. Apart from Japan v Saudi Arabia. But by then, the Saudis place among the pre-tournament favourites was the relic of a bygone age. To be fair, until Japan eventually scored, the Saudis passed the ball neatly, moved well and looked quite confident, fashioning the odd chance in the process. Unfortunately for them and the match as a spectacle, Japan scored after six minutes. And the Saudis probably wished they’d never sacked Jose Peseiro. It came as no surprise to learn that Peseiro’s replacement, Nasser Al-Johar, now needs replacing too, with “a highly-qualified international crew and domestic aides,” according to the Saudi Soccer Federation. Perhaps something for ‘big’ Sam Allardyce to do while he waits for Jose Mourinho to chuck things in at Real Madrid.
This left Jordan v Syria as “winner-takes-all,” although a draw would have done for Jordan. In situations like these, the tournament has benefited from its generally hopeless defensive play, which has taken playing for a 0-0 draw out of most equations. It was taken out of this match by Syrian striker Alzino, or ‘Alzinoooooooooo’ as the Eurosport commentary consistently dubbed him. With the words a fraction of a second behind the pictures, this sounded particularly daft – the elongation of his name providing a soundtrack to another goal attempt heading for another emirate entirely. But on 15 minutes, it sounded fine when Alzinoooooooooo put the Syrians ahead. Alas, the Syrians shot themselves in the foooooooooot with a first-half own goal, a proper effort from Ali Deeb rather than the deflections which continue to pepper the tournament. Jordan’s goalkeeper Shafi made two early second-half saves, the second possibly the best bit of keeping of the tournament. And just as Eurosport’s Bryan Hamilton laid into Jordan for being too “direct”, the impressive Odai ran onto a goalkick and nipped in-between frightened defender and frightening goalkeeper to win the game.
Australia had it disappointingly easy against a timid Bahrain. And despite declaring at 1-0, they won the group on goal difference as South Korea couldn’t give plucky India the necessary shoe-ing in the other match. Three-one up at half-time, the Koreans would have gone top on goals scored with another two in the second half. But the communal shoulder-shrug which met their fourth goal – at a time when a fifth was still possible – suggested they thought it didn’t matter. And with Japan as semi-final opponents rather than Uzbekistan, they might be thinking differently now. At least there was some consolation for Russell Osman – and Eurosport viewers in Bury – as India’s “torchbearer” Baichung Bhutia, who used to ply his trade at Gigg Lane, got 12 minutes towards the end. Fans logging on to the goal.com website were less consoled – they made Bhutia the ‘flop of the match.’ Harsh.
As suggested in these pages, Kuwait allowed Qatar a free ride to the quarter-finals, although British Eurosport viewers such as myself will have to take website match reporters’ words for it, as they didn’t show the game – a subject to which I shall return with some bitterness. And China, thankfully, weren’t good enough to fix the win over the Uzbeks in the other game that could have taken both teams through with Uzbekistan topping the group. Indeed, it was a feature of the last round of matches that the unloved and unlovely teams largely got their just (lack of reward). China, apparently, “flattered to deceive”, according to one website headline. But I didn’t see anything particularly flattering. And I can’t believe they fooled anyone. And North Korea and the UAE ended up with two goals between them – both own goals for UAE’s Walid Abbas, for whom we “had to feel sorry”, according to the telly. I didn’t.
The UAE crumbled 3-0 to Iran’s reserves when, remarkably, they still had an outside chance of qualification. Meanwhile, the Korean People’s Republic actually played some decent football in the second half against Iraq. Unfortunately the TV guys were so busy reminding us how bad North Korea were for two-and-a-half games that they didn’t notice Jong Tai-Sae fluffing some promising positions, even though they both kept mentioning his name (Wayne Boyce going for the generally accepted “Tay Say”, analyst Stewart Robson sticking with “Tie Sea”, despite all the surrounding evidence to the contrary).
Overall, though, it wasn’t enough to counter Robson’s first-half analysis of the North Koreans as having “no cohesion, creativity, athleticism, skill or technique.” And anyone who ever saw Robson play will know what an expert he was in all those areas. Pak-Doo-Ik, North Korea’s biggest football name from their famous 1966 side, would have been turning in his grave if he wasn’t still alive. Meanwhile, Iraq were deservedly through, despite what the commentators referred to, in some sort of euphemism contest, as “their much-publicised troubles” or “much-publicised problems.” Don’t mention the war, indeed.
It came as little surprise, then, that the Group of Dead Boring’s half of the draw produced two dead-boring semis. Even the Eurosport 2 News highlights felt overlong at one-and-a-bit minutes each. And, for Australia’s and Harry Kewell’s single goal, extra-time victory over the defending champions Iraq, that was all that was available through the cable which brings television to my house. It will forever remain a puzzle to me why ‘Continental’ Eurosport, covering various snowy areas of European high ground, has chosen to show the football, while British Eurosport, covering a nation semi-paralysed indoors “unless your journey is really necessary” by the mere mention of snow on the weather forecast, get the Biathlon World Cup, the Skeleton World Cup and the Luge World Cup instead. Even the highlights programmes have been largely on Eurosport HD, which I wrongly assumed to be ‘Eurosport’ in high definition, rather than a different schedule entirely. And with the two British Eurosport channels showing, I kid you not, thirty-five hours of tennis per day, the Socceroos and the Lions of Mesopotamia didn’t stand a chance.
The Japan v. Qatar quarter-final got almost the same cold shoulder, the promised British Eurosport 2 live coverage either not happening or getting stuck somewhere in our house’s Virgin Media cabling. The ‘wrong kind’ of cabling, perhaps. Luckily, the drama the hosts and the favourites provided couldn’t be kept down entirely, although clearly the five-goal thriller’s five goals all had an element of Billy Smart’s Circus about them – one or two of them with some Monty Python’s Flying Circus thrown in. “He’s tried to save that behind the line,” noted Osman, correctly and incredulously, as Japan had a minute of madness which threatened their whole tournament.
Behind to a goal so offside you could have spotted it on the radio, Japan had hauled themselves back into it at 1-1. But Maya Moshida grabbed his second yellow of the match and Japan’s hapless goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima did indeed try to save Fabio Cesar’s curling near-post free-kick from all-but the back of the net. All that goalline technology could have told us was the size of Eiji Kawashima’s stupidity. What with Kawashima’s brainstorm of a sending-off against Syria, he’s had a bit of a tournament. You have to wonder what reserve keeper Shusaku Nishikawa has done, in a previous life or this, to be second choice behind… that. But just as against Syria, Japan turned into Barcelona with the extra space provided by their missing man. Qatar’s defensive coach may appear to be (insert your own favourite tasteless blind person reference here) but the through ball played to Shinji Kagawa for what was eventually Masahiko Inoha’s winner would have had Xavi going “oooh, I’d like to have done that.”
For 45 minutes, the Uzbekistan v. Jordan quarter, which not even the Luge could keep off my screen, threatened to be the shortest of straws. But the second half was a belter. Jordanian Arabic clearly doesn’t have a phrase for “keep it tight for ten minutes after half-time,” because Ulugbek Bakayev was given the freedom of Doha to grab the Uzbeks’ contracted two goals, and the game looked dead after 48 minutes. Jordan had, however, spotted that the Uzbek’s custodian, Ignatiy Nesterov was small and s***e – never a winning combination for a keeper. And after Nesterov let another inswinging corner through unmolested for Bashar Bani Yaseen to make it 2-1, he was taken off – the first tactical substitution of a goalkeeper at international level that I can recall. It worked, too. “That’s what they’ve brought him on for,” noted Osman as Nesterov’s replacement Timur Juraev dealt with a ball above his head by not waving it through to the feet of a Jordanian at the back post.
Uzbekistan’s Aleksandr Geynrikh went through his entire repertoire of Andrew Johnson-isms; the fluffed chances, the hairdo, the “anticipating the challenge” (i.e. diving) and, unfortunately, the injury. He’ll be a miss if he doesn’t make the semis. And although Jordan kept going, they were almost down to the coach driver in terms of substitutes, having been decimated by suspensions and injury to the impressive Odai, and they could easily have let in a few as they bundled forward in search of extra-time. Osman had said “I’d like to see Uzbekistan v. Australia in the final,” although he may have just done so for a bet. Japan v. South Korea would have been a popular choice for the final in these parts. And I guess we’re both happy enough, as those are the semi-finals. Something to look forward to very much, unless Eurosport have got some spare Luge with which to clog up their schedules. Grrrrrrrrrrr…
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