The 2019 AFC Asian Cup: It’s a Knockout

Mark Murphy has been scratching his head after the AFC Asian Cup’s first knockout round. He really should get those nits seen to….

Vietnam 1 Jordan 1, after extra-time, 90 minutes score, 1-1, Vietnam win 4-2 on penalties

Vietnam deserved their first-ever appearance in the last eight. But, with six minutes’ extra-time left, Jordan were denied the clearest penalty imaginable…outside Scotland.

Ferad Zayed chased a pass which Vietnam keeper, Dang Van Lam, collected on the corner of his six-yard box, slowing his momentum then visibly quickening to frontal charge the approaching Zayed. A clear, brain-freeze penalty to concede. But his brain-freeze was contagious.

The referee was close but just told Van Lam to calm down, not over-concerned by the challenge. The fifth official was close enough to be hit by any bodily fluids sprayed by the impact but wasn’t overly-concerned by what he’d seen AND, surely, heard. And a befuddled Zayed literally forgot where he was, merely waving an imaginary card rather than plea/scream for a penalty. The previously voluble VTV (Vietnam state telly) commentators went as sheepishly quiet. But post-match media reaction was less-predictably restrained. Must have dreamt it.

However, excellent refereeing facilitated Jordan’s 39th-minute goal. Do Hung Dung fouled Salem Al-Alajin in the penalty box. But the ref rightly awarded an indirect free-kick for dangerous play (alongside competitive drop-balls on modern football’s rarity scale), Baha Abdelrahman arrowing the tapped free-kick past Van Lam to emphatically remove all argument.

Jordan were on top before scoring. But Vietnam edged it thereafter and merited their 51st-minute equaliser, Nguyen Cong Phuong finding overdue composure to net Nguyen Trong Hoang’s fab cross, with the VTV commentary-box verbal ejaculations spelled by any feasible combination of vowels. And Vietnam near-perfected the shoot-out, every spot-kick arching towards the bottom corner, with only Tran Minh Vuong sufficiently scuffing his shot to let Shafi fall on it from a great weight.

Shafi will be missed. But Vietnam and their state telly commentators could be as entertaining.

Thailand 1 China 2

The youngsters tired and the old guard ground on as Marcello Lippi’s Chinese adventure was extended at least, and very probably at most, one match further (Iran next, people). Thailand may have been sharp, energetic and attack-minded. But they weren’t very good, even though they seriously threatened a shock for a bit.

And it seriously threatened to be a violent match for a bit. Gao Lin and Kesarat Tanaboon fouled each other in one clash, moments before Chaidad Supachai simply aimed a kick at the luckless Lin’s unmentionables, the adjacent ref only producing a yellow card presumably because Supachai made, ahem, ‘minimal contact.’

Supachai actually missed again moments before he did, slicing a shot horribly wide before turning and firing home on 31 minutes when Pansa Hemviboon’s shot landed at his feet eight yards from goal. Theeathon Bunmathan’s dipping free-kick/overhit cross (I’m educated-guessing the latter) was tipped over by China’s long keeper Yan Junling. But the game changed when the sides changed ends (some fans seeing FAR more action up close than others).

China’s 67th-minute equaliser was already long overdue, Yu Dabao squandering the best of China’ early second-half situations, seven minutes earlier, finding keeper Shivarak Tedsungnoen’s left-boot, three yards from a goal as gaping as Lippi’s expression of disbelief on the sidelines. The genius Lippi introduced Xiao Zhi on 64 minutes and he netted when his own header was saved by Tedsungnoen. And, three minutes later, the luckless, near-crotchless Lin, was hacked again, this time by Chalermpong Kerdkaew, but had enough functioning limbs left to thump the resultant penalty home.

Junling made a save-for-the-cameras from Hemviboon’s 93rd-minute 20-yarder. But Thailand are out. Time they let Hakeem Al-Araibi out too, eh?

Iran 2 Oman 0

It was a ‘sliding doors’ moment, not a turning point…because, after 53 SECONDS, there was nothing to turn from. Muhsen Al-Ghassani was floored by Iran’s Majid Hosseini, eight yards out. Hosseini was, rightly, booked…you can’t DENY a goalscoring opportunity by conceding a penalty (Schrodinger’s offence?). But Ahmed Al-Mahaijri’s kick was saved by keeper Alireza Beiranvand, who was two yards off his line when it was struck, with the ref and fifth official stood looking at him. And, thus reprieved, Iran showed most of the form which has informed observers (and me) tipping them as champions.

Striker Sardar Azmoun missed three semi-sitters with a mix of air-shots and shots miles into the air. But the game was won by half-time. On 32 minutes, Mohamed Al-Musallami’s neat chest control 18 yards out set up Alireza Jirandeh to slide the ball under keeper Faiyz Al-Rusheidi, the only problem being that Al-Musallami is Omani. And, eight minutes later, Faiyz nearly stopped Seyed Dejagah’s straight-down-the-middle with his bootlaces, after Mehdi Taremi was fouled at least once.

Faiyz made a terrific right-handed stop from Taremi’s 58th-minute volley, six minutes after Azmoun’s most magnificent miss. Oman’s Raed Saleh headed a good chance wide on 64 minutes. But Azmoun and Taremi combined for the move of the match with six minutes left, Taremi’s shot bringing the best from the by-now overworked Faiyz. It could have been different if Oman had scored from the spot. But probably not.

Japan 1 Saudi Arabia 0

Role-reversal was the order of the day, as Japan’s usual Barcelona-level possession went the Saudis way. Sadly for them, the match didn’t. And Saudi coach Juan Antonio Pizzi’s post-match resignation was about right.

The Japanese eschewed their usual intricacies to lead on 18 minutes with their first sniff of goal, Takehiro Tomiyasu coming up from the back to tower-head in Gaku Shibasaki’s left-wing corner. But for all their possession (72-78% depending on whether your stats source is East or West Asian), the Saudis only hit the target once, and missed it by so much when so often well-placed that it almost (almost) looked as if they were doing it on request. Almost.

“A professional performance,” claimed the official tournament website commentator, while one Saudi mic-man sounded as if he was sobbing more uncontrollably with each powder-puff or horribly skied effort. The latter was way closer the truth.

Australia 0 Uzbekistan 0, after extra-time, 90 minutes score, zzzzzzz…, Australia win 4-2 on penalties)

The Guardian Australia newspaper’s Nick Miller likened Australia’s 2019 Asian Cup to Italy’s stumbles to 1982 World Cup success. But Oz have rather more resembled Argentina’s 1990 World Cup, having stunk the place out bar fleeting moments against Palestine.

‘Hector Cuper’ must mean something in Vietnamese other than the Uzbek coach ’s name, because the VTV commentator said it 31 times in the first half. And, yes, I was counting, because, yes, the first half was that dreadful.

Australia improved, the laws of nature dictated as much. But Uzbekistan fashioned the clearer chances. Their player-of-the-tournament, Eldor Shomodurov, hit Oz keeper Mat Ryan with his 10th-minute shot, after strolling through the defence. And on 87 minutes, Jaloluddin Masharipov shinned one wide from ten yards. Extra-time looked likelier to produce a goal…but not very likely, especially when Australia ran out of steam as well as ideas.

The shoot-out was harsh on Uzbekistan’s Ignatiy Nesterov, who produced the best shoot-out save I’ve ever seen. Aziz Bahich’s penalty was better than many successful ones in this tournament. But Nesterov got down at full-stretch to his left, while staying on his line. Sadly, Islom Tukhtahujaev aimed his spot-kick at Ryan’s face. Ryan then made a more traditional shoot-out save, so far off his line that the ref was nearly in his way. And Matthew Leckie, the VTV commentator’s second-favourite phrase, netted, to scrape Oz through.

United Arab Emirates (and match officials) 3 Kyrgyzstan 2, after extra-time, 90 minutes score 2-2.

And just as I finally learned how to touch-type Kyrgyzstan, they’re out. The UAE were the better of two unexpectedly slick-passing sides. Yet Kyrgyzstan were inches from a shoot-out and with a bit, OK a LOT, less clumsiness in front of goal, could have won outright. And, at key moments, the .

The football itself was a tale of two sevens, Emirati Ali Mabkhout with his Filippo Inzaghi-esque appreciation of the offside law and Inzahgi-esque comic profligacy in front of goal, and Kyrgyzstan sub Tarsunali Rustamov’s influential interventions, for good and ill.

The UAE over-protected their 2-1 normal-time lead. But Mabkhout applied no such caution with seconds of extra-time second-half stoppage-time left, with the ball at his feet deep in Kyrgyz territory and the corner flag almost audibly beckoning. And within 20 seconds of giving possession away Rustamov’s left-foot shot was cannoning to safety off the underside of the crossbar to the audible relief of Emirati everywhere and, no doubt, the profit-conscious at Asia’s football confederation.

The UAE led on 12 minutes, Edgar Bernhardt letting the ball go out for a goalkick only for a corner to be given, which Khalifa Al-Hammadi headed on for Khamis Zayed to head in. Mirlani Murzaev brilliantly equalised from a near-impossible angle, 14 minutes later. But after Mabkhout finally netted on 64 minutes, the UAE ceded momentum, and Kyrgyzstan equalised after Rustamov blocked Tamirlan Kozubaev’s on-target shot before making full amends by bundling in a 91st-minute corner.

Extra-time was undull, for a change. And, on 101 minutes, the referee stepped up when required, penalising Bekzhan Sagynbaev for putting his hands out protectively, with Mabkhout already tumbling towards him. Ahmed Al-Junaibi fired his spot-kick through angry Kyrgyz keeper Kutman Kadyrbekov, which set up the late drama and, ultimately, the hosts’ progress. Dodgy but, just, deserved.

South Korea 2 Bahrain 1, after extra-time, 90 minutes score, 1-1.

South Korea, whose kit must have faded in the wash, gave human rights and diving header aficionados, a huge lift with this victory. The very light reds conceded their first goal in the Emirates, thus requiring extra-time to send Bahrain packing. But sub Kim Jin Su’s diving header (as retro as an indirect free-kick for dangerous play) from Lee Yong’s far-post right-wing cross was worth waiting for until stoppage-time in first-half extra-time.

Bahrain’s shooting was panicky and South Korea, with “HM Son” predominant, led on 42 minutes, Hwang Hee-Chon side-footing home after Bahrain keeper Sayed Hadhem pushed Lee Yong’s low right-wing centre into his path. Bahrain’s 79th-minute leveller took a more circuitous route to goal, Sayed Dhiya miscuing his shot straight to sub Mahdi Al-Humaidan, whose own shot was cleared off the line by Hong Chul, straight to Mohamed Al-Romaihi, who couldn’t miss.

Korean keeper Kim Seung-gyu tipped Jamal Rashed’s left-foot curler to safety ten minutes earlier. But Bahrain’s shooting remained a threat to birdlife. And Hwang Ui-Jo missed a 93rd-minute sitter, slicing horribly wide after being sent clear by Waleed Alhayam’s horrible backpass, Alhayam’s smile as his team-mates accepted his apology betraying considerable pant-wetting relief.

An unmarked Kim Young-Gwon headed as horribly wide in the first minute of extra-time’s first-half stoppage-time. But the second minute produced the winner, to wipe the smile off AFC president and Bahraini royal Sheikh Salman. The miserable **** never smiles, of course. But its nice to pretend that he was…then wasn’t.

Qatar 1 Iraq 0

Such is the paucity of Qatari support at this tournament, for complex, mostly political, reasons, that the loudest presence in the stadium whenever they attacked against Iraq was probably the commentator from Qatari broadcaster BEIN Sports, whose already-booming commentary appeared to express disapproval by lapsing into ear-catching French…“ooh-la-la” making multiple visits to the airwaves.

The commentator’s disapproval was limited, though, as Qatar were full value for their win, with Iraq’s evening best summarised by deadball specialist Ali Adnan’s late free-kick, which briefly threatened a dramatic, spectacular equaliser before tailing away as it neared the target.

Iraq kept tournament top-scorer Amoez Ali off the scoresheet, though Iraqi keeper Jalal Hachim came perilously close to upending him in an early penalty box challenge. But there were threats elsewhere, most notably from turbo-charged left-wing-back Abdulkarim Hassan before half-time and Bassam Alrawi after it. An unmarked Hassan side-footed against the bar from seven yards on four minutes. And he hit the outside of the post with a deflected cross in first-half stoppage-time, an effort that was never on-target but that Hachim wouldn’t have reached if it was.

Iraqi teenager Muhanad Ali squandered their best first-half chance, displaying control best described as ‘air-traffic’ as he bore down unhindered on goal. Alrawi replicated the ‘trick,’ on 53 minutes. Cue disapproving French from the BEIN com-box after both incidents. Alrawi was then laughably unpenalized for clattering Iraq’s Mohanad Al-Shammari in the penalty box. And he made decisive amends, for misdemeanours noticed and otherwise, on 61 minutes, arrowing a 20-yard free-kick past an unwisely-turned head in Iraq’s defensive wall.

Predictions

Hey, six out of eight wasn’t bad. And I’d probably have got seven out of eight if Jordan had got THAT penalty. So, here’s some semi-finalist speculation.

Iran/China seems a no-brainer. And it would take some no-brain play for Iran not to win. No goals against is a powerful message this deep into the tournament. And China boss Marcello Lippi will need to have something big up his sleeve. And, at the risk of sounding over-technical, his sleeves don’t look big enough. Japan are overdue some top form, whatever the claims of a ‘professional performance’ against the Saudis. Vietnam have a puncher’s chance, much as they did against Jordan. But Japan are better than Jordan. Surely?

Son Heung-Min’s arrival in South Korea’s ranks has been partly offset by Ki Sung-Yeung’s hamstring injury-enforced departure. But they should still have too much for however-much-improving Qatar. Just like Saudi Arabia…and Iraq…erm… Meanwhile, battles between hosts and defending champions are less mouth-watering in quadrennial tournaments (Russia/Germany last summer would have been NO humdinger). The UAE finally produced something against Kyrgyzstan. And something, ANYthing, should suffice to put Australia out of their, and our, misery.

So, Iran/Japan, South Korea/UAE. East v West twice. How nice.