The 2019 AFC Asian Cup: Hello VAR-ness, My Old Friend

Mark Murphy had forgotten that Video Assistant Referees (VARs) would be in Asian Cup action from the quarter-finals onward. He won’t forget again…

Japan 1 Vietnam 0

I really HAD forgotten. So I was puzzled when referee Mohammed Hassan halted Maya Yoshida’s languid goal celebrations and pressed his fingers to his ears, before making the TV screen mime kids all over England will be doing when ‘the greatest league in the world’ finally catches up with the world and uses VARs next season.

He rightly disallowed Yoshida’s goal for an unintentional but goalscoring handball (the, Australian, tournament YouTube channel commentators referenced the ball hitting “the number 11’s backside” and a “handball to start with, it wasn’t shoulder,” neither incident of concern to the, Australian, VAR, James Beath). And he could usefully have pressed his fingers to his ears to block out the screams from Vietnam telly’s two commentators, even if they were in VTV’s Hanoi studio.

The Indo-Chinese Jonathan Pearces celebrated the decision as if Vietnam had scored. Mind you, they celebrated Vietnam getting possession in the final third with similar Beatle-mania. Which meant much screaming before half-time, as Vietnam’s busy counter-attacking thrived, but much less after the next, again correct, VAR intervention, the award of Japan’s 57th-minute match-winning penalty.

And, for all their first-half industry, they had keeper, Dang Van Lam, to thank for half-time parity, as he picturesquely saved Takehiro Tomiyasu’s header from a well-worked short corner and made a terrific reflex block when Takumi Minamino rounded off the slickest move of the match, right before half-time.

The VTV boys seemed briefly confident after half-time, one screeching something sounding like “goodbye” as Vietnam cleared some early lines. But Van Lam had already denied Genki Haraguchi when Ritsu Doan hurtled towards the penalty-box deck with initially indeterminate assistance from Vietnam centre-back Bui Tien Dung. Hassan was initially uninterested and it wasn’t until the ball next went out of play that he pressed his fingers to his ears and did the telly thing again. What larks if Vietnam had scored by then, eh?

A third VAR camera angle showed one possible and one ‘clear and obvious’ foul. Dung was initially baffled to be booked. But, like Bob Hoskins at the end of ‘The Long Good Friday,’ realisation gradually, visibly dawned on him as he recalled events, with TV cameras centring on him, before Doan figuratively ‘dusted himself down’ and placed his spot-kick, by millimetres, past Van Lam’s left-hand. From foul to spot-kick was about three minutes. But three minutes properly spent.

Thereafter, Japan clicked into the closest they’ve been to gear all tournament and only Van Lam kept Vietnam in the game as they swarmed towards plucky territory. It was an enjoyable occasion, with a great atmosphere. That it was one of the tournaments best occasions so far says more about the mediocrity of the football so far. Proper match, though

Japan’s semi with (spoiler alert if you’ve not seen the next paragraph heading) Iran should be something. The final, for instance. Meanwhile, it is farewell, then, VTV screechers (the VTV commentaries I’ve heard on other games have been lower-key). They could be Vietnamese Robbie Savages, for all I know. But I’ll miss them anyway.

Iran 3 China 0

To concede one goal when your central-defence misjudges a big boot downfield may be regarded as a misfortune, to concede two looks like carelessness and to concede THREE… Well…the original Oscar Wilde quotes was about parents, so he never used a third word. And he almost certainly never used whatever words Marcello Lippi may have said as his Chinese team conceded identical triplets against an Iran side which really, REALLY didn’t need the help.

Nothing in this game was ever likely to shake the belief that Iran are the best team in the tournament. An Iranian friend cautioned against such optimism (“there’s always a big no-brain moment or match in them”). If so, they are leaving it late. They could have scored as many as they liked here, although they probably should have scored more than they did. Some of that was probably down to China’s across-the-pitch inadequacies. But not all of it. They were solid in defence, pressed to good effect in midfield and threatened consistently on the break. Apart from that…

China’s veteran-and-a-half, Zheng Zhi, belied his 162 years by athletically clearing Sardar Azmoun’s fifth-minute header off the line. But Iran led five minutes later, Feng Xiaoting committing the ‘schoolboy error’ of ‘letting the ball bounce’ after Iran propelled a long one towards target/talisman man Azmoun. The striker nicked the ball as Xiaoting, in the words of momentarily-confused tournament YouTube channel commentator John Helm, “dallied and dillied,” and squared it to Mehdi Taremi, who couldn’t miss from ten yards.

Taremi could, however, miss from three yards, as he proved moments later. But the tried-and-trusted search for the big lad up front worked again on 31 minutes. Azmoun’s tug on Liu Yiming’s shirt as he latched onto a punt delivered from the edge of Iran’s own box, was deemed unclear and not obvious by VAR and the striker raced round keeper Yan Junling before finishing from a tight angle.

VAR had already properly rejected a Taremi penalty appeal (it looked like a penalty but, by that definition, wasn’t a clear and obvious one). And the system appeared to work with elsewhere unapplied immediacy, judging by on-field referee Abdulrahman Al-Jassim’s gestures. And it wasn’t about to give China anything to hang their hat on as Iran continued to create chances.

They had to wait for the next schoolboy error, on 91 minutes, for goal number three, Taremi gifted possession when the ball rebounded off defender NAME’s seemingly cast-iron kneecap, before setting up Azmoun’s replacement, Farim Ansarifand to celebrate his fifth minute on the pitch by firing home. But with their inability to concede goals, and the game long and convincingly won, Iran could afford the wait.

Qatar 1 South Korea 0

“Boost for Spurs as Qatar knock Son’s South Korea out of Asian Cup” noted the BBC Football website, with titanic insularity.

Iranian tournament victory looks near-inevitable. But as long as Qatar keep winning, that ‘near’ should stay right where it is. South Korea have taken toothless to pre-dental work Shane Macgowan levels. And, some might say at last, they paid for their (cliché alert) ‘lack of quality in the final third.’ Both sides had chances but South Korea had the clearer chances (if they were ‘kicking themselves’ after the game, they probably missed).

The game hinged on a fraught four minutes. Kim Jin-Su’s 20-yard 77th-minute free-kick hit clipped the past, with Qatari keeper Saad Al-Sheeb pretending he knew it was going wide showing great judgment to let the ball go. Ninety seconds later, Abdelaziz Hatim’s goal-of-the-tournament contender flew low into the bottom corner from 22 yards, arching away from Korean keeper Kim Seung-gyu’s outstretching left hand. And 90 seconds later still, Hwang Ui-Jo acrobatically side-footed in Lee Yong’s(CHK) right-wing cross, only for the VAR to confirm that his left arm and shoulder were ahead of the ball and the last defender.

The first half was as turgid as you’d fear from two sides so reliant on counter-attacking. But South Korea showed previously unheralded pace and purpose after the break. And with tournament top-scorer Amoez Aliiiiiiiiii (copyright Vietnam telly’s ‘quieter’ commentator) a constant threat with HIS pace and purpose, the second-half almost made amends for the earlier dreck.

But, bloody hell, South Korea should have scored on 57 minutes. Lee Chung-Yung only, as ‘they’ say ‘had to get a touch,’ as the ever-dangerous Kim Jim-Su’s deep cross was frenetically waved to its destination by Al-Sheeb. Alas, the, let’s say, ‘unsighted’ Chung-Yung’s ‘touch’ took the form of a wonderful defensive clearance (the ball rather hit him) and though they didn’t know it yet, South Korea’s best chance had flown miles over the bar.

This was no ‘smash-and-grab,’ however. Qatar had plenty of moments and showed good, ahem, ‘game management’ skills after the goal. Boualem Khoukhi’s spectacular 87th-minute bicycle-kick gave Seung-gyu something to think about. But otherwise, a mix of towering defensive headers, superfluous substitutions (Amoez Ali taken off after stoppage-time was complete…I’m sure the rest will stand to him) and tactical cramps guided South Korea to defeat and proved all us those Qatari-sceptics wrong, the fools (cough).

UAE (plus referee) 1 Australia 0

Hooray. Tom Rogic is coming home. Good news for Celtic (what was that about insularity?) as they battle Kilmarnock for the Scottish title. He’ll be rested too, having sat this one out (not unlike his colleagues, the cynics cry) after his suspension for two tournament bookings. Thus denuded of much of their creativity, Australia finally gave up their Asian crown, huffing-and-puffing and peppering the UAE penalty box but too rarely the goal.

UAE’s winner was the product of another home-emirate decision. On 68 minutes, Ali Mabkhout, the ‘Emirati most likely’ throughout the tournament, latched onto Milos Degenek’s woefully underhit backpass, rounded Oz keeper Mat Ryan and slotted home. Degenek was clipped by Mohamed Abdulrahman as he turned toward his own goal. He steadied himself before woefully underhitting his backpass, so the error was his. But he was fouled, nonetheless. In keeping with what cynics might consider tournament requirements, however, the on-field referee’s decision withstood VAR scrutiny.

Nevertheless, the UAE showed as much creativity through Ismail Al-Hammadi’s 20th-minute toe-poke at Ryan than Australia managed throughout the night. “Ooh-law-law, Ismail,” declared our favourite intermittently French BEIN Sports commentator, clearly impressed. And the only Aussies to make equivalent francophone impressions were “Chris Ikonomidisssss” and Apostolos Giannou, whose left-foot shot forced rare activity from UAE spectator-keeper Khalid Bilal on 40 minutes.

Mabkhout headed over a glorious chance just before half-time, his accuracy impeded by Fares Al-Saadi’s minimalist flick-on. Degenek bundled one wide early in the second half. The ever-lively Al-Hammadi nearly did a ‘Ricky Villa’ on the hour. And Ikonomidis half-volleyed wide a minute-and-a-bit before the goal. But though Australia eventually managed nearly two-dozen efforts ‘at’ goal, most were half-chances; looping headers or semi-blocked shots which might not even have reached the goal if allowed to roam free.

“One-dimensional,” sneered the critics. Correctly. While the UAE, VAR-assisted this time, march on. All they need now is to be given a goal with the score at 2-2 with the ball clearly landing ON the line, and they’ll have the set. If such a thing could ever happen to a host nation in international football.

Predictions

Iran/Japan could/should be a/the final. But Qatar/UAE would have been a mischievous bet if it wasn’t the other semi.

Iran will miss the twice-booked, suspended Taremi, whatever his imprecision three yards from goal. He and Azmoun have been a formidable attacking and counter-attacking threat. It’s hard to see that mattering, however, unless Japan’s intricacies in the final third are performed with more pace and width than has previously been the case.

I’ve already successfully tipped enough teams to Qatari defeat. So the UAE might need their home, and man (with whistle, flag or screen) advantage. Or maybe even SHOOT-OUT penalties.