The 2019 AFC Asian Cup: Semi-Finals, Shocks & Shoes

Mark Murphy confidently predicted an Iran victory in the AFC Asian Cup. The silly sod…

Japan 3 Iran 0

There wasn’t an old proverb which goes: “Heed your Persian friend when he says ‘there’s always a big no-brain moment or match in them’.” But there is now. I said Iran were “leaving it late” to produce one in this tournament. But it was well worth the wait, if not a moment destined for the ‘What Happened Next?’ spot in the Farsi version of ‘A Question of Sport.’ Mack Sennett couldn’t have directed it better (one for the kidz, there).

Eleven minutes after half-time, with a tight contest still goalless, Iran’s Mohammed Hossain ‘encountered’ Japan’s Takumi Minamino to a disputed extent on the edge of the penalty area. Minamino headed for the deck and four Iranian defenders headed for Aussie referee Chris Beath, either to protest a free-kick award which never came or Minamino diving.

There wasn’t time to be sure which, as a fifth Iranian defender, Ramin Reza, clocked Minamino springing to his feet and successfully chasing down the ball as it approached the corner flag, while over a third of Iran’s team surrounded Beath. And the quartets panicky, slapstick reorientation was too late to stop Minamino crossing for Yuya Osako to score, as Iranian keeper Ali Reza, possibly still in shock at what he’d seen, flailed at an imaginary object some feet from the one Osaka headed in.

Japan boss Toshihide Saito politely applauded the goal as if sh*t like that happens in the J-League every week. While Iran’s suspended (and very missed) Mehdi Taremi was caught on camera watching with increasing goggle-eyed disbelief, looking more like Sergio Aguero with each eye-widening and able to get through passport control AS Aguero by the time the ball hit the net.

Iran had the one clear first-half chance, on 20 minutes, when star striker Sardar Azmoun played a one-two with Vahid Amiri, wriggled past Takehiro Tomiyasu and brought a decent save from Japan keeper Shuichi Gonda with his right-foot shot. But Azmoun was otherwise effectively shackled by Japan’s central defence and by any means necessary. The lasting image of the half was Azmoun with arms outstretched in exasperation. And his exasperations boiled over shortly before full-time when he instigated an off-the-ball incident which in turn instigated a 20-player bout of handbags.

But Iran’s composure had steadily disappeared since they went behind. And any hopes of its return vanished on 62 minutes 22 seconds when Morteza Pouraliganji was adjudged to have handled the ball as he slid along the ground to block Minamino’s cross. Pouraliganji escaped censure for a similar incident early in the first half. And he looked likely to do so again when Beath, the first Video Assistant ref at these finals, was called by the VAR here to revisit his decision, as Pouraliganji’s errant arm was in a natural position for someone sliding along the deck.

The VAR pictures suggested that the handball was probably not intentional. But, as pundits all over the world still struggle to comprehend, that isn’t enough for a video assistant to overturn an on-field referee. The pics needed to show the ball striking a permissible part of Pouraliganji. They didn’t. And, on 66 minutes 11 seconds (which made the four minutes’ stoppage-time at the end of the match seem stingy, Osaka netted the long-ago-given penalty.

Iran were ripe for picking off on the break thereafter and Japan should have scored at least once before Genki Haraguchi’s thankfully uncontroversial 81st-minute conversion of Minamoto’s pass. And so it s that Iran became the first beneficiaries of the decision to NOT hold a third-placed play-off/bronze medal match. Very scant consolation for a very shocking defeat.

Qatar 4 United Arab Emirates 0

Qatar’s top scorer Amoez Ali is destined for the Golden Boot, after his eighth goal of the finals helped Qatar to this thumping, stunning victory.

Fab goal, too. He set his shot out yards wide before it swung like a Jimmy Anderson delivery on a cloudy morning at Lord’s. It wasn’t on-target at all until clipping the inside of the post at the very last moment. Emirati keeper, and Richard Blackwood stunt-double, Khalid Bilal had no chance, unlike Qatar’s first goal, Boulaem Khoukhi’s semi-speculative 20-yarder finding a matchball-sized hole in his gloves. But the Golden Boot is not the shoe for which this game will be remembered. Rather the dozens which rained down onto the Qataris celebrating it.

Amoez merely did a little jink for the cameras, due to the paucity of Qatari fans with whom to celebrate (long story…politicszzz). But that was enough for the UAE fans behind the goal behind the camera, who indulged in an Arab ‘tradition’ last in public view in 2008 when US president George W Bush niftily dodged two thrown by Iraqi journalist Muntadhar Al-Zaidi at a Baghdad press conference. There were warning signs. Qatar’s Akram Afif had to abandon an attempt to take a corner moments earlier due to a bombardment of various missiles. A hostile atmosphere was therefore upped a notch, with the referee admonishing Qatari players for complaining.

The stands were a sea of white-and-white bar a few red-dressed fans who were either brave Qataris or hadn’t got the dress-code email. Indeed, it was impressive support up to the point when the team’s wheels and the crowd’s shoes came off. But even the most passionate loyalists would have been dispirited into silence by the ease with which Qatar controlled matters after scoring.

Most of the UAE’s best situations came from Qatari sloppiness in the final third. But few clear chances followed. Ismail Al-Hammadi headed their only first-half sight of goal straight at keeper Saad Al-Sheeb. The inevitable Ali Mabkhout fizzed in a 20-yarder, on 52 minutes, which Al-Sheeb saved with unrequired bodily contortion. And he would have tipped Ahmed Al-Junaibi’s 72nd-minute header, over the bar, except the ball was going over anyway.

Eight minutes later, it was shoes a-kimbo again (and much. much more) when a tamely-struck pass from the halfway line navigated an unlikely path past and round defenders and attackers alike and Hasan Al-Haydos deftly dinked the ball over a collapsing Khalid from eight yards. The UAE’s Ismail Ahmed left early to avoid the traffic (and maybe a shoe-ing) by elbowing Salem Al-Hajri when the ref wasn’t looking but his video assistant most certainly was. And Hamid Khaleefa ran onto Afif’s pass and netted the fourth off Khalid’s right boot with 18 seconds of stoppage-time left.

Qatar head coach Felix Sanchez quickly shuffled his team to their dressing room, lest a whole branch of Russell and Bromley landed on their heads, leaving the stage for crying Emiratis, on and off the field. To be honest, if I’d played, or watched my team play, like…THAT, I’d have been crying too. And, of course, some of the crowd could only have been hopping mad, unless they had thick socks or a spare shoe.

It is disappointing that shoes have attracted the most UK media attention to the tournament. As BBC sports news correspondent Richard Conway wondered on twitter, journalistic instincts to the fore: “Do you need to bring an extra shoe in case you need to throw one, or do you walk hone partially barefoot?” No longer a problem for UAE fans. Not at the tournament anyway..

Final prediction

Predictions are a mug’s game. And Qatar certainly made a mug of me, and doubtless some well-informed pundits too, since their insipid in goalless-draw with Lebanon in their opening game.

Teams have won tournaments after ‘difficult’ starts, as I noted when trying to make a case for Australia’s title defence after their group stage travails. But for Qatar to do so here would be a real resurrection in footballing fortunes. There’s even the previously unconsidered prospect that they won’t make twats of themselves at their own World Cup.

After years of fielding Qataris in inverted commas (think Ireland football teams under Jack Charlton and South African-stuffed England cricket teams under everyone), it appears that they’ve ‘naturalised’ some midway-decent players at long bloody last.

It will be Qatar’s first Asian title, or Japan’s record-breaking fifth. And Japan too have improved since their opening game squeak past Turkmenistan. They’ve mixed and ultimately matched styles, dominating possession in most games, as has been their wont in recent years, but just as dominated in beating Saudi Arabia.

They scored seven goals between them in their semi-final successes. So expect a low/no-score draw and penalties here. He says, in the hope that his predictions are as wrong as ever.

STOP PRESS: Tomorrow (Friday) is AFC Asian Cup final day. And while the eyes of most of the world outside the UK (damn you domestic broadcasters) are on this event, the #SaveHakeem campaign and many, many other advocates for his release are co-ordinating campaign efforts. Details can be found under the #SaveHakeem hashtag and campaigning group Change Fifa, (@changeFIFA ) appear to be retweeting everything they can find. Bahrain have until 8th February to get their extradition shit together. Any pressure that can be applied over the forthcoming days will be hugely welcome.