So they had us all fooled. Qatar may have displayed what Martin Walker in the Daily Mail pinpoint-accurately described as “pub-team awfulness” in losing their opening AFC Asian Cup game to Uzbekistan. But it was all a ruse. They are good after all. And you might as well give them the 2022 World Cup now. The trophy, as well as the tournament. Yusef Ahmed bagged a brace for the hosts as they outmuscled a China side whose long-ball game was made to look very ugly indeed. Yusef’s second goal was one of the many deflected efforts in this tournament to date – most of them, in fact, for a good few games. But his first was a cracker, a piece of thigh control and a 20-yard volley that even he hadn’t predicted.
Indeed, after two sets of group games, the Asian Cup has provided little of the sterile predictability of most major international tournament group stages (not to mention the unwatchably tedious UEFA Champions League groups) and plenty to occupy the mind, even if it is clearly a tournament of mostly mid-table FIFA-ranked nations. The presence of the Indian team as something of a wild card has been a godsend to the goals-per-game ratio. Not only because they’ve shipped nine in two games but also because they biffed a couple in themselves against Bahrain, which was nice to see. Or at least it would have been, had British Eurosport 2 deigned to show the first hour of the game, rather than stick with the interminable snooker from an almost empty Wembley arena.
Whoever thought modern snooker players could fit ten or eleven frames into a three-hour live programme needs a job other than TV sports scheduling. Eurosport’s coverage is as extensive as my mate Tim Caple says (see the comments on my previous Asian Cup article). The trouble is you’ve got to be on Central European time – a utopia where, mercifully, snooker is an alien concept – to see it. The fact that India qualified through winning an inferior tournament, and doing so half a lifetime ago, has been ruthlessly exposed. But they’ve frequently entered ‘plucky’ territory and look as if they might actually develop as a result of their participation.
How much they’ve learned might be gauged by comparing their opening display against Australia with their up-coming closing one against South Korea. But they’ve done better than some might have feared, given that star player Bhaichung Bhutia has been reduced to tantalising touchline warm-ups thus far because of a calf injury – which has frustrated Indian football expert Russell Osman almost to the point of tears. And despite the increasingly congested goals against column, India have one of the tournaments more ‘proper’ goalkeepers in Subrata Paul. Competent in all the basics, most of his high fielding is slow-motion replayed by the host broadcaster at least six times, such is it’s novelty value. And he doesn’t roll around in gripping pain after every time he’s challenged in the air. Unlike, at the risk of stereotyping all the goalkeepers from the competing Gulf nations, ALL the goalkeepers from the competing Gulf nations.
India weren’t even the first team to be knocked out. That (dis)honour went to the hapless Saudis, who contrived to waste another 62% possession stat in losing 1-0 to Jordan, whose winner from Baha’a Abdelrahman’s left-touchline free-kick flew into the goal at the same high speed as Saudi keeper Walid Abdullah was flying in the opposite direction – on a neighbouring flight path. A ‘near miss’ in aviation terms. A ‘cock-up’ in goalkeeping terms. Jordan weren’t about to let this 1-0 lead slip, as they’d done some months into stoppage time in their opener against Japan. Had Jordan held on to both 1-0 leads, they would have been the proverbial cat amongst the Group B pigeons, safely in the quarters while the tournament’s slickest footballers, Japan, might have been checking Tuesday’s flight times to Narita Airport…or Fukuoka Airport, if the locals were felling particularly critical.
The Japanese were given the mother, father and first cousin of all frights by the Syrian Arab Republic in the tournament’s first really ‘mad’ game. When Japan put their minds to playing, they are the tournament’s best team by a couple of lengths – after they went ahead on 34 minutes they almost bore comparison with the second-gear Barcelona on Sky Sports at the same time. But they had to be shocked into doing so after the break by Syria’s comic-book equaliser. Hesitant, shall we say, Japanese defending forced keeper Eiji Kawashima into a hurried mishit clearance which rebounded back towards a temporarily exposed goal, where a miles-offside Sanharib Malki and Kawashima collided as Malki got his toe to the ball.
The referee immediately gave a penalty for Kawashima’s near-assault and went fumbling in his bottom pocket for a red card. Meanwhile the Japanese defence, with an urgency vitally lacking seconds earlier, directed the referee towards his assistant’s raised flag. Oxford Union debates have been quicker than the two officials’ discourse on the matter. The assistant, backed by copious evidence from the tournament’s forward play, assumed that a Syrian forward had mishit a shot back towards the open goal. The host broadcaster’s penchant for slow-motion replays from all angles met was untimely resistance, so offered no evidence to anyone of anything. But the referee, backed by little evidence from moments earlier, assumed a Japanese defender had played the ball. Ergo penalty, dismissal for Kawashima and Syria’s equaliser from wildly-popular substitute Firas Al Khatib.
Galvanised, Japan started paying homage to Catalonian football again, won and converted a penalty of their own, and held on for a thrilling victory, which leaves Group B open to all-comers and gives Jordan’s ‘derby’ fixture with Syria’s Arab republicans a real significance, with Japan by no means certainly through. There was real significance to Iran v. Iraq – the “Shatt Al Arab river derby”, according to the always entertaining Barney Ronay in the Guardian – without attaching any lazy “footballing Gulf War” labels to the game. It was properly competitive without being a Gulf war by another means – despite a free-kick count that could have ‘graced’ Leeds v. Chelsea in the early 1970s. And Iraqi striker Younis Mahmoud showed a determination to bump into everything and everybody in pursuit, presumably, of the ball that resembled a bull in desperate need of a china shop.
That Iran and Iraq look the best bet from Group D says little, though. North Korea’s fans are the neatest dressed. Neat and dull…just like their team. Hong Yong Jo seemed to treat his early penalty against the United Arab Emirates as a crossbar challenge. But that’s about as adventurous as they got until the same player hit the bar from open play late on against Iran. The best thing about that game was the backdrop of the Doha skyline at dusk, which had an other-planetary feel about it. Oh…and Iran use the long throw to an extent not normally seen outside Staffordshire. The ‘group of death’, indeed. So, the state of play is as follows:
GROUP A: Uzbekistan 6pts, Qatar and China 3pts, Kuwait – even their best player’s name is pronounced ‘badder.’
Qatar complete their qualification against a Kuwaiti side that’ll lie down and let the hosts tickle their tummy if they know what’s good for them. Not literally, of course. That would be weird. Teams level on points are separated by head-to-head results before goal difference. So China beating the Uzbeks could well qualify both teams, with the Uzbeks topping the group and likelier to avoid Japan in the quarters. There’ll be no funny business there, then.
GROUP B: Japan and Jordan 4pts, Syria 3pts, Saudi Arabia – down the road.
A humdinger, this group. Japan should steamroller the Saudis, or at least the equivalent in this tournament of predominantly careful football. This leaves neighbours Jordan and Syria to sort out the other quarter-finalist. What’s the betting British Eurosport find some luge or skeleton to show instead?
GROUP C: South Korea and Australia 4pts, Bahrain 3pts, India – plucky.
Probably the most clear-cut of the groups after South Korea and Australia drew with each other and looked better than the other two in doing so. South Korea and India are mismatched, even if Bhaichung Bhutia plays for India. And it would be a funny old game if Bahrain beat Australia. Very, VERY funny indeed, actually.
GROUP D: Iran 6pts, Iraq 3pts, UAE 1pt, North Korea – their new leader’s fat, you know.
Iran will test whoever they meet from Group C – and it would be VERY funny if that was Bahrain… or have I already said that? Iran are already through, while Iraq need defeat to avoid the quarters. Iraq have slipped since winning in 2007. But they’re defending their title better than certain French and Italian teams of recent vintage.
Quarter-final line-up prediction? Uzbekistan v Jordan, Japan v Qatar, Iraq v (alas) Australia, South Korea v Iran. So put your hard-earned on Syria v China at the very least.