The 2019 AFC Asian Cup: Group Stage Denouements

The Asian Cup groups had quite dramatic finishes. Maybe 24 or 48-team tournaments are a good idea then? Mark Murphy…doesn’t quite go THAT far.

Group A: India 0 Bahrain 1; United Arab Emirates 1 Thailand 1

Fifa’s marketing department will be FURIOUS. It is tempting to connect Bahrain qualifying via a last-minute penalty with Asia’s Confederation president being a Bahraini royal. But, for once in international football power politics, unremitting cynicism is misguided. It WAS a penalty. Bahrain were the better side. And Fifa must wait for the rupees to roll in from football’s ‘biggest emerging market.’

First-half chances were few-and-far-between, as per in this tournament. And Sunil Chhetri had the best of India’s fewer-and-further-between chances, as per generally. But throughout the second half, Bahrain’s goal was ‘coming.’ Mohamed Magroon headed against the post. And Chhetri offered very personal commiseration to Jamel Rashed after his penalty-spot indirect free-kick for an erroneously-handled backpass to keeper Sandhy Gurpreet (“a blasphemous decision” – Indian sports website Khelpanda.com) was deflected over.

But Hamed Alshansam was unceremoniously upended by Indian skipper Pronay Halder. And Gurpreet JUST bodyswerved Rashed’s down-the-middle spot-kick (the TV pictures I saw didn’t reveal whether Rashed offered any personal commiseration to Chhetri). Rotten luck on India overall, as only Bahrain had a better record among the third-placed teams. But not ‘on the night,’ however unremitting your cynicism.

The UAE and Thailand could have ensured qualification by arranging an exciting draw. But their tepid draw was more credible from two firm title non-contenders,. Ali Ahmed Mabkhout headed the hosts ahead on seven minutes after Ismail Al-Hammadi’s deft dink hit the bar. PuangJan Thitipan levelled on 40 minutes after defending which would have got Keystone Cops fired for excessive slapstick. And both teams advance. But the UAE, and the tournament, sure miss Omar Abdulrahman.

Group B: Australia 3 Syria 2; Jordan 0 Palestine 0

Australia needed Tom Rogic after all, if only to avoid the ignominy of not beating coach less Syria, who sacked Bernd Stange after their loss to Jordan. Oz would have been Group B runners-up with a draw. But Aussies lambasting Rogic last week call him “Tommy Rogic” now, after he pinged home his 92nd tournament shot from distance, on 92 minutes.

Awer Mabil will be a tournament star if Australia stay in it long enough. He put them ahead on 41 minutes with a cracking left-foot 20-yard curler. And 90 seconds later, it appeared to be business as usual as Syria’s Omar Khribin wasted another close-range headed chance. But Oz keeper Mat Ryan parried the ball straight back to the previously profligate striker, and even HE couldn’t miss.

‘Tommy’s’ 54th-minute cross was netted by another of Oz’s ‘better’ players, Chris Ikonomidis. Back came Syria on 80 minutes, the ref taking eons to give a penalty for a foul on Omar Al-Somah (who scored from the spot), presumably on the advice of an assistant, and not the voices in his head telling him that Al-Somah didn’t dive. But then Tommy intervened and Ox’s title defence continues.

Palestine COULD have qualified. Deservedly level with 19 minutes left, Mahmoud Wadi was unmarked 12 yards out, with time to chest the ball down and fire Palestine to a potential four points and into the last 16. But he took the circus contortionist’s route to a potential bicycle-kick and into…a crumpled heap as the ball dribbled nowhere. “Did he need to?” asked one commentator. No. He didn’t.

They should take pride in their overall performance. But losing 3-0 to THESE Socceroos? Not so sure.

Group C: China 0 South Korea 2; Philippines 1 Kyrgyzstan 3

South Korea offered more attacking threat before going one-up against China than in their entire two previous games in the UAE, possibly due less to the arrival of ‘Tottenham’s Son Heung-Min’ than China’s chaos-theory defending. Son was fouled by both Zheng Zhi (yes, Charlton fans, he IS still going) and Shi Ke for Korea’s 14th-minute penalty, which the official match co-commentator curiously “thought he’d missed” after Hwang Ui-Jo curled a near-perfect spot-kick into the bottom corner.

A well-placed Jin Jingdao fired over a chance to level on 16 minutes. But Ui-Jo curled a beauty against the Chinese post five minutes later. And when centre-back Kim Min-Jae thump-headed home a near-post corner for the second consecutive game, five minutes after half-time, the contest was over.

The Philippines had a first-ever finals goal to celebrate but largely didn’t, as it was a late, meaningless, Stephan Shrock of a goal by name and nature, a hopeful free-kick punt from the left which so horribly deceived Kyrgyzstan’s second-choice keeper Rutman Kadyrbekov that it made him look like he was wearing his age on his number thirteen shirt. But the Consonants became the second-best third-placed team via Vitalij Lux’s hat-trick, a neat side-foot from 12 yards, a smooth shot on the turn from 15 yards and a rebound after Mirlan Muzaev fired against the post.

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

Ultimately, Iran/Iraq was a near-non-event and possibly a bit of genius scheduling by the tournament organisers. It brought to mind a 2010 World Cup finals group game between Brazil and Portugal, hyped mercilessly by the BBC but, as some of US predicted mid-merciless hype, a dull 0-0 draw between two already-qualified sides. I thought Iran/Iraq would be different. I was wrong.

It was a better game. Just. But staging it after the sides had already, predictably, qualified, divested it of its footballing competitive edge, with Qatar and Saudi Arabia, the Group runner-up’s potential opponents, striking no fear here. Iran’s ‘big lad up front’ (BLUF) Sardar Azmoun missed an early sitter, which might have changed the nature of the game. But energetic defending ruled until Alaa Abbas’s 77th-minute header was tipped over by back-pedalling Iran keeper Ali Reza. Even Iraq’s Ali Adnan was, er, ‘off-beam’ with his deadball specialism.

‘Plucky Yemen,’ said the official tournament YouTube commentary. So it’s…well…official. And whatever the Vietnamese is for “the skin of their teeth,” Vietnam advanced by it, despite Yemen’s pluck denying them a better record than luckless India. Nguyen Quang Hai’s’s 38th-minute free-kick was the best of the tournament’s thus far shoddy deadball efforts. And Vietnam sealed victory and qualification on 64 minutes, after Yemen’s Abdulaziz Al-Gumaei took Nguyen Cong Phuong by the throat in the penalty box. Que Ngoc Hai’s spot-kick was nearly disallowed for offside, so far did Cong Phuong’s encroach. And, had it been disallowed, Lebanon would have been celebrating.

Group E: North Korea 1 Lebanon 4; Qatar 2 Saudi Arabia 0

As it transpired, Lebanon were arguably unluckier not to qualify than India, even though they went behind to North Korea, for pity’s sake. Pak Kwang-Ryong struck his ninth-minute, 25-yard free-kick presentably but it was morally an own goal by Lebanon keeper Mehdi Kalul, who elbowed it past himself. Against any other team, Lebanon’s last-16 dreams would have ended, as they needed a four-goal win. But this was episode three of football reality-TV show “My GOD, North Korea are sh*te.” So, it was still game on even when Lebanon only led 2-1 after 80 minutes.

George Melki levelled on 27 minutes, given a simple finish by Hassam Maatouk’s brilliant Ricky Villa-style moving-and-shaking. Hilal Al-Helwe’s delicious left-foot half-volley gave Lebanon a 65th-minute lead. Maatouk’s 80th-minute penalty had colleagues scurrying hither-and-thither to rush the restart. They scored again in minute 98, Al-Helwe nearly breaking the net from distance. But Lebanese post-goal scurrying carried less conviction, as full-time loomed.

They had replicated Vietnam’s points, goals and goal difference but lost out on the half-hour, when Robert Melki received Lebanon’s sixth finals’ booking. Vietnam only received five, which was the ‘tie-breaker’ before drawing lots.

Fahad Al-Muswad’s sublime control and shot against the post nearly gave the Saudis a 20th-minute lead. Then, on 42 minutes, Qatar’s Amoez Ali was cleaned out by a sliding Alihadi Abdulayhi. Saudi keeper Mohamed Al-Owais blocked Hassan Haydoos’s spot-kick with his left knee. But Qatar led in first-half stoppage-time, Amoez strolling past the Saud central-defence, scoring and dismembering the corner-flag in celebration. He scored again on 59 minutes, a near-post header disallowed for…erm… But he headed in another corner on 80 minutes. And no-one was disallowing that.

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

Japan were group winners but Oman provided the ultimate drama, scoring twelve seconds from the end of stoppage-time to qualify.

Ahmed Al-Mahaijri’s sumptuous free-kick gave them a 20th-minute lead (“he’s the skipper, he’s the talisman,” noted his agent, masquerading as TV commentator John Helm), though doubtless some Uzbek Jamie Carraghers will claim that keeper Mammet Orazmuhammedov could have stopped it with a personalised name tag because it ‘wasn’t in the corner of the goal.’ Miserable sods.

Altymyrat Annadurdyyev’s 40th-minutr toe-poke (another one!) brought Turkmenistan level. Al-Mahairji’s header (“yet again he’s there when needed” – Helm) was side-footed home by Mushen Al-Ghassani to put Oman ahead again on 84 minutes, after some considerable Turkmeni(CHK) resistance. And when Mohamed Al-Musallami netted the winner, the whole Omani bench invaded the pitch, as the cameras caught Orazmuhammedov sticking two fingers up at, presumably, the defence which gave Oman’s number two such a free header from eight yards.

Drawing with Japan would have made Uzbekistan unlikely group winners. And they led on 40 minutes, Eldor Shomurodov following his hat-trick against Turkmenistan with a fine solo goal, after Japan had previously monopolised the first-half chances. Two minutes later, though, Japan levelled, Yoshinori Muto heading home Sei Muroya’s right-wing cross. Tsukasa Shiotani, on his club ground, dismissively thumped Japan ahead on 58 minutes. And it turned out to be the winner as Japan keeper Yuji Yabuki photogenically tipped over Davronbek Khashimov’s 85th-minute attempt to replicate Shiotani’s effort.

So far, so erm…

It is worth recording how much drama has been added to the finals by the, correctly-pilloried system of the four best third-placed teams in the groups qualifying, necessitated by having 24 finalists. Rather than just letting mediocrities advance via spawny 1-0 wins, there were virtually no ‘dead rubbers.’

The finals need some of that drama, though. Most games I’ve seen ‘as live’ have taken an age to get going and a couple never arrived. The official tournament YouTube Channel offers two-and-a-bit-minute highlights packages of each game. And too many of those 140-odd seconds have had 30+ seconds of pre-match crowd shots and/or previews. While ‘unofficial’ extended highlights packages, which focus exclusively on balls into the box, showed rather too many aimless balls int the box.

The football has been neat-and-tidy overall, though. There hasn’t yet been a truly violent encounter, which could be good or bad things, depending on your outlook. And at least no non-North Korean team/squad fully disgraced themselves. Well…not yet, anyway.

Second round predictions

Iran look the title pick from the group stage performances. They have an impressive variety in attack and while their defence has yet to be tested, it might not be over-tested by second round opponents Oman. Hopefully, Son Heung-Min’s arrival will continue to improve South Korea enough to at least send Bahrain packing. Nothing personal, necessarily, against the Bahraini players. But, you know, Sheikh Salman, Hakeem Al-Araibi and all that. Five-nil, minimum, would be nice, if optimistic.

Again nothing personal but Thailand deserve defeat, for similar Al-Araibi reasons (#savehakeem). However, their intermittent vigour may, in and of itself, be enough to see off the elderly Chinese, who have so far creaked quite badly. Australia’s title defence may wobble against group stage dark horses Uzbekistan. While Kyrgyzstan may be unexpected quarter-finalists simply because the hosts aren’t very good.

Qatar have been surprisingly not sh*te, even allowing for the North Korean-ness of one of their opponents. And Amoez Ali’s seven goals in three games demands attention, whatever the defences. Iraq at their best should be too good. But Qatar have hinted that they might not be embarrassing hosts of 2022’s World Cup. ON the pitch, anyway.

The wild celebrations of Mohamed Al-Owais’s penalty save showed how important the Qatar match was to Saudi Arabia. So they cannot but have been badly hit by losing it. Meanwhile, their last-16 opponents Japan have barely fired on one cylinder, let alone all of them. So, it could be a cracking match, or 3-1 on penalties after a very 0-0 draw.

And Jordan/Vietnam will definitely provide an unexpected quarter-finalist. And with Vietnamese striker Nguyen Cong-Phuong (way over)due some luck in front of goal, the personality of the tournament to date, Jordan netminder Amer Shafi might need more than that personality to keep a fourth clean sheet.

Anyway, here’s my quarter-finals, for what my opinion is worth (two-tenths of five-eighths of f**k all, at the last count): China/Iran; Jordan/Japan; South Korea/Iraq; UAE/Australia.