The AFC Asian Cup? What’s That, Then?

by | Jan 11, 2019

The largest continent’s international football tournament has had a fair-to-middling first round. Although even Mark Murphy wouldn’t have known that from watching British telly…

Group A: United Arab Emirates (and a linesman) 1 Bahrain 1; Thailand 1 India 4

‘They’ say that international tournaments benefit from hosts being involved for as long as possible. And ONLY that can explain the penalty given to the UAE late in this year’s Asian Cup opener.

The first 67 minutes were 67 very opening game minutes. Neat and tidy. But only occasionally more gripping (albeit WAY less creepy) than watching someone neat-and-tidying their bedroom. Then, without warning, some excitement.

The UAE had the better of those 67 minutes. Ismail Al Hammadi whacked Bahraini keeper Sayed Hashem in the face with the best first-half chance, on six minutes. Al Hammadi resembled Dutch journeyman Royston Drenthe (Everton fans, wince away), especially when squandering that chance.

Ali Al Hajeri missed as good a chance on 68 minutes, after a clever corner move. But once Bahrain showed concerted attacking ambition, there was trouble afoot. Mohamed Al-Romaihi had one fine shot saved by UAE keeper Ali Al-Blooshi on 72 minutes and gave Bahrain the lead six minutes later when Al-Blooshi made an Al-Blooshi of a cross, palming it virtually onto Al-Romaihi’s head. Eight camera angles couldn’t determine if the header crossed the line. But Al-Romaihl thumped in the rebound.

NO camera angle could determine whose handball conceded the UAE’s 88th-minute penalty, because NO-ONE…HANDLED…IT. The referee was right there and turned away. So, either the fifth official (behind the ‘wrong’ side of the goal) or the relevant linesman (in another Emirate) gave it. Football politics, eh? Cracking penalty from Ahmed Khalil. But NOT a penalty.

A (correctly-awarded) penalty kick-started India towards a “”romantic”” win over Thailand (and cost Thai coach Milovan Rajevac his job). Star striker Sunil Chhetri blasted that spot-kick home and scored a star-spangled second goal 53 seconds after half-time. He is now 19 international goals behind Cristiano bloody Ronaldo and could close the gap entirely if he faces Thailand many more times.

Teerasil Dangda did nod a free-kick past India’s constantly out-of-position keeper Gurpreet Sandhu to equalise. But Anirudh Thapa’s cheeky dinked finish and just-introduced substitute Jeje Lalpekhlua’s shameless toe-poke from the edge of the box saw India home comprehensively enough to all-but-guarantee qualification as a best third-placed team.

Group B: Australia 0 Jordan 1 Chris Sutton 0; Syria 0 Palestine 0

So. Farewell then. Chris Sutton’s remaining football-punditry credibility. At no stage during Australia’s often-hilarious loss to Jordan did they resemble defending champions. Jordan were out-muscled. A bit. But Australia were out-played.

The BEIN Sports commentator screamed what sounded like ‘Hadary’ whenever the ball approached Jordan’s (talis)manic custodian Amer Shafi. Which seemed about right, given Shafi’s and ex-Egyptian talisman Essam El-Hadary’s near-identical goalkeeping idiosyncrasies, including a determination to NEVER catch the ball, and, crucially, capable shot-stopping.

Not that Australia stretched Shafi much. For all their possession, and crosses from the right (especially during a desperate stoppage-time), they created few clear chances, Awer Mabil’s drive against the post on 78 minutes came from nowhere and wasn’t matched by Rogic’s 94 long-range efforts.

Jordan, however, stretched Australia with pacy counter-attacking. Their short-corner move for their 26th-minute goal, headed powerfully home by Anas Bani Yaseen, caught the Aussies napping. While every forward thrust was met with Beatlemania screaming from the Jordan fans.

Chris Ikonomidis and Jackson Irvine forced semi-routine saves from Shafi, who was hugging the ball at the final whistle…which seemed about right.

Palestine Mohammed Saleh’s second yellow card against Syria was, like the UAE penalty, a decision so bad ‘they wouldn’t give it in Scotland.’ From some camera angles, Saleh appeared to ‘lead with his elbow’ as he aerially challenged Omar Khrbin. But the nearby referee could have HEARD the clash of heads.

The decision cost Palestine nothing. And despite considerable wobbles from keeper Rami Hamada, Palestine’s resilience was too much for, bar the constantly-involved Khrbin, a toothless Syria. Will Australia need Rogic to thump either of them? Pointless asking Chris Sutton.

Group C: China 2 Kyrgyzstan 1; South Korea 1 Philippines 0

The Consonants Republic led on 42 minutes when Akhlidin Israilov left-foot volleyed home a half-cleared long throw from 20 yards. Alas, on 49 minutes, Kyrgyz keeper Pavel Matiash, having studied the wrong Jordan Pickford videos, went all ‘Kop-end-in-the-last-minute-at-Anfield’ to palm a skyward defensive header into the net. And 13 minutes from time, Chinese sub Yu Dabao recognised the Kyrgyz for “after you, Claude” from Kyrgyzstan’s centre-backs, ran onto a hopeful punt, rounded the Kyrgyz Pickford and netted the winner. The Asian champions will NOT be coming from this game.

If the Philippines weren’t supportable underdogs, South Korea’s efforts to break them down would have often bordered on monotony. The soundtrack in my head as their pass-and-move strategy foundered on well-drilled central-defending was Lee Dixon shouting “move the ball quicker,” the panacea for teams with Pep Guardiola-esque possession and Jose Mourinho-esque creativity.

For 66 minutes, South Korea doing without Son Heung-Min for their first two games resembled Chris Sutton-style misjudgement. Hwang UI-Jo was on the end of their few remotely-incisive moves. And it was only right that he turned and fired home from a cutback by Hwang Hee-Chan (pronounced Hwang KEE Chan by the TV commentator…to the point of distraction, given that, yes, the ‘H’ was silent.

The Philippines had their moments. Better teams might have converted one 4-on-3 situation. Javier Patino nearly pinged a 40-yarder past Korean keeper Kim Seunggyu, who was temporarily at left-back. And manager Sven-Goran Eriksson didn’t have to tear his hair out. Handy, that, as he has precious little left and less of it long enough to grip.

Nearly a great story, if not a great game. But there was an entertaining curiosity in one incident. At one South Korean free-kick, two Koreans knelt in front of the defensive wall, a double-reinterpretation of the recent ‘innovation’ of kneeling BEHIND walls to block shots going under them. And the ref told them to get up like an angry mother scolding recalcitrant children, though what offence they were committing wasn’t clear.

Group D: Iran 5 Yemen 0; Iraq 3 Vietnam 2

One team in every tournament flatters to deceive with early performances. However, Iran DID impress in dismantling Yemen.

Host broadcasters BEIN Sports insisted that Yemen fell behind to a fourth-minute own goal by keeper Saoud Al-Sowadi. But the Yemenis probably should have opened the scoring immediately before Iran did. And the game wasn’t quite the procession suggested by the score and Al-Sowadi (intermittently) impressive shot-stopping.

Al-Sowadi was done by some late swing on Sardar Azmoun’s 12th-minute shot, Mehdi Taremi netting the rebound. His own goal DID arrive when Ashkan Dejagah’s 25th-minute free-kick hit him and the post on the way in. Two minutes later, Taremi bullet-headed home a cross by Ramin Rezaeiansemeskandi…surely the biggest scrabble score at the tournament.

Al-Sowadi made a fine early second-half save but almost immediately mispunched feebly to let Azmoun side-foot Iran’s fourth. And Azmoun politely ducked beneath Seyed Ghoddoos’ goalbound 78th-minute volley for their fifth. Yemen soon entered ‘plucky territory’ and their four late bookings were fashioned from both fatigue and frustration.

Iran’s defence will be better tested as the tournament progresses (Iraq next Wednesday, people). But their Fifa/Coca-Cola top-ranking among the finalists looked reliable.

If you’ve read my international tournament witterings, you WILL ‘remember the name Ali Adnam.’ And you’ll surely remember it after his sumptuous 90th-minute free-kick won a game in which two goals could credibly have been accompanied by the Benny Hill theme tune.

Especially Vietnam’s 24th-minute opener. Ali Atiyah attempted a ‘Zidane turn’ in front of his own keeper, Jalal Hachim, (for reasons best discussed with his inevitable future therapist) and backheeled the ball into the net. Vietnam’s nearest player, Nguyen Cong-Phuong, should have been embarrassed to wheel away in celebration and take his team-mates’ plaudits. But he wasn’t.

Iraq levelled 11 minutes later, Mohanad Al-Shammari drilling home a right-foot shot. Cong-Phuong should then have gone down in the penalty area after being caught by Atiyah. But he didn’t. However, he beneficially encountered Atiyah again, on 42 minutes. Nguyen Trong-Hoang’s toe-poke was parried by Hachim and Atiyah could only frontheel his attempted clearance into the net off Cong-Phuong’s on-rushing ankle.

Pivotal moment alert: Cong-Phuong could have made it 3-1 on 55 minutes. But he didn’t. And three minutes later, Humam Faraj equalised, his deflected shot flying high into the net after Al-Shammari’s header was muffled and Vietnam’s Bui Tien-Dung and Do Duy-Manh resembled ‘Bambi on Ice.’

Iraq dominated thereafter and worthily won a fun encounter…albeit one peppered by some, cough, ‘robust’ tackling, Iraq particularly adept at leaving a foot in, which might provoke more trouble later in the tournament (Iran next Wednesday, people).

Group E: Saudi Arabia 4 North Korea 0; Qatar 2 Lebanon 0

North Korea probably fashioned as many clear-cut chances as the South, in the ‘friends of Donald Trump’ derby. But the Saudis found great joy, and two first-half goals, from low balls into the box. Hattan Bahebri’s 28th-minute example “really did pack some gunpowder,” according to tournament YouTube channel commentator…Alan Partridge. Hossain Al-Moqahwi fired in a 37th-minute free-kick from the same postcode and team-mates responded willingly as he beckoned them for plaudits, which was harsh on Mohamed Al-Fatil, who had brilliantly backheeled the ball home.

North Korea’s Han Kwang Song had missed a glorious headed chance two minutes earlier but made better contact on 42 minutes. Unfortunately, he contacted Al-Moqahwi’s calf, a sending-off offence rather than the second booking given, which suggested Song thought Al-Moqahwi had had a nerve claiming Al-Fatil’s goal.

Saudi keeper Mohamed Alburayk was at full-stretch to stop Ri Yong-Jik’s excellent long-range effort making it 2-1. An incorrectly-flagged offside Pak Kwang-Ryong also fully-stretched Al-Burayk with a 77th-minute header. But it was 3-0 by then, Salem Al-Dawsari curling in a left-footer on 70 minutes. Fahad Al-Muwallad’s thumping left-foot shot completed the thumping.

Qatar/Lebanon was, not unexpectedly, what even the official tournament website labelled “a challenging encounter.” But for 30 manic seconds, Lebanon cared not a jot, as Ali Hamam neatly side-footed home Hassan Maatouk’s 37th-minute corner and hared to the dugout 70 yards away, to join the squad’s en masse celebration of the opening goal, blissfully unaware that…er…it wasn’t, because the referee had blown for what replays revealed to be an imaginary foul.

The Lebanese were sawn off, both by their disallowed goal and the 65th-minute free-kick which Bassam Al-Rawi artfully curled home from 20 yards but was given for the double-unlucky Maatouk’s demonstrably unintentional handball. And on 78 minutes. Almeez Ali tapped-in the winner, after sub Abdulaziz Hatim’s shot was saved, for the better…no…make that ‘less-mediocre’ side.

Group F: Japan 3 Turkmenistan 2; Uzbekistan 2 Oman 1

Japan’s narrow win over Turkmenistan was unexpectedly one of the better opening-round games.

Turkmenistan threw some odd shapes defending their own penalty box and took ‘flying into tackles’ dangerously literally, occasionally into each other. And they should have led on 17 minutes but Mekan Saparov headed two yards over from two yards out. (“Ohhhhhhhhhhh,” noted the BEIN Sports commentator, correctly). But nine minutes later, they did, when Arslan Amanov pinged a 30-yarder through Japan keeper Shuichi Gonda’s gloves (“Allaaaaahhhhh,” noted the BEIN Sports commentator, correctly). And Gonda saved Ahmet Atayev’s left-foot piledriver to keep the interval score 1-0.

But Japanese goals were coming. On 56 minutes, Yuya Osaka’s wonderful control, turn and shot from Genki Haraguchi’s arrowed pass. And, on the hour, Osaka tapping in Yuto Nagatomo’s cross after unexpected defensive hesitancy. Ritsu Doan’s clever 71st-minute finish appeared to underpin the expected clear victory. But Turkmenistan deserved Atayev’s fine 79th-minute penalty, after Gonda tap-tackled Altymyrat Annadurdyyev.

If for nothing else, Uzbekistan’s win over Oman will be remembered for the dive of the tournament to date, Oman’s Raed Saleh badly simulating being tripped by the…BALL. He got the free-kick, mind. The ref clearly had Scottish ancestry.

Uzbek keeper Ignatiy Nesterov made a fine save on 14 minutes from Oman’s Ahmed Al-Mahaijiri’s close-range header. And, a little against the run of play, Uzbekistan led 20 minutes later, Odil Ahmedov punishing Khalid Al-Braiki’s clumsy-and-a-half challenge, curling his 25-yard free-kick round the wall.

Oman sub, Muhsen Al-Ghassani rounded Nesterov for a well-deserved, if offside, 74th-minute equaliser. But Uzbek sub Eldor Shomurodov found the winner, six minutes from time, beating keeper Faiyz Al-Rusheidi’s’s feeble efforts at his near post. Whatever the Arabic is for “he’ll be disappointed with that,” someone at BEIN Sports surely said it. And Oman couldn’t take advantage of Igor Krimets’ late dismissal for downing a goalbound Mohamed Al-Ghassani.

TV

The tournament is viewable in Britain… but resolutely NOT on telly.

I asked Eurosport how their coverage, available on mainland Europe, could be accessed here. And, apparently, Brexit has already happened in TV-land. So, for instance, the reportedly-largest North Korean community outside Korea will have to watch the Luge World Cup instead.

YouTube has shown games, in Arabic or Indo-Chinese (and Vital Borkelmans sounds even better in Arabic than English). And the tournament’s YouTube channel only appeals if a Thailand/India pre-match ‘cook-off’ does.

Shameful insularity from British broadcasting.