Asian Cup drama ready to ramp up in last 16 after wild, emotional groups

Photograph: Aijaz Rahi/AP

When tens, perhaps hundreds, of millions of people – OK, many of them were from China, hoping for a miracle – are breathlessly tuning in to see what happens between Tajikistan and Lebanon and seeing something historic, heartbreaking and just plain dramatic then you know that something is going well. Nobody knows what is going to happen in this wild, exciting and dramatic Asian Cup. It’s already been emotional – Syria’s translator broke down after coach Héctor Cúper secured a first ever second round spot) – and the group stage will go down as the best that the tournament has produced for a long, long time. Just eight of the 24 teams have gone home but they all played their part.

Some did so by being historically bad. China did not even score a goal but it seemed like their apparent plan of squeezing through with three draws was going OK. After two points from the first two they were rocked by an absolute belter from Qatar’s Hassan al-Haydos. Team Dragon returned home to a mix of disdain and apathy. They had hoped that Tajikistan and Lebanon would end all square but there were three great goals in that game, with the Central Asians scoring in injury time to advance to the second round for the first time, depriving a desperate and devastated Lebanon from doing the same.

China’s woes added to others in East Asia. If political and financial power has been drifting westwards across the continent in recent years, then the big football talent was thought to reside in the Lands of the Rising Sun and the Morning Calm. It still is but Japan and South Korea, clear favourites before it all started, have problems.

Indeed, it looked as if the expected meeting between the two that was set for the final was going to take place in the second round. Japan’s defeat by Iraq, where their defensive issues and goalkeeping mistakes that had been apparent in a 4-2 opening win against Vietnam were punished by a talented and determined Iraq team ended an 11-game winning streak. Japan’s goalkeeper of mixed heritage, Zion Suzuki, reported racist abuse from fans back home. The Samurai Blue finished second in Group D and sat back and waited for the Koreans to win their group and book the biggest game in Asian football.

In the end, Korea couldn’t do it and almost finished third in Group E before taking second behind Bahrain. A 2-2 draw with Jordan came courtesy of a last-gasp own goal but, never mind, their final match was against lowly Malaysia who hadn’t scored in the first two games and had not won a game on this stage since 1980. Yet after going behind, the Southeast Asians scored twice in quick succession to move ahead 2-1 in the second half. South Korea’s coach, Jürgen Klinsmann, has not impressed – and not seemed that interested – since arriving in Seoul almost a year ago but a loss to a team ranked 107 places below his side at 130, would have been a major humiliation for both coach and players. Lee Kang-in intervened once more with a spectacular free-kick and then Son Heung-min scored a penalty but Malaysia, with Korean coach Kim Pan-gon in charge, grabbed a 105th-minute equaliser for a famous 3-3 draw.

It meant that Klinsmann will face Roberto Mancini and Saudi Arabia on Tuesday. The Italian started out by claiming that three regular players wanted to pick and choose their games and left them out of the squad. The knives were being sharpened after 78 minutes in the opener against Oman but then came an equaliser and a 96th-minute winner and things have calmed since. Saudi Arabia and South Korea is the first meeting of traditional continental powerhouses of the tournament and while the former would have been clear favourites two weeks ago, owing to form as well as the large and loud Saudi contingent of fans, it is anyone’s game.

Shin Tae-yong, a former Korea coach, has taken Indonesia into the second round for the first time, thanks to a hard-fought victory over regional rivals Vietnam, who disappointed under Philippe Troussier and went home early after finishing bottom of Group D. It was Shin’s reward for faith in youth as well as naturalised players, a policy that had been criticised by some at home. Of the Southeast Asian quartet of sides in the tournament, Thailand also made it through in second place behind Saudi Arabia in Group F.

In Central Asia, there was delight as Tajikistan made it through, led by the effervescent German coach Petar Segrt. A second round tie against a United Arab Emirates team that has not impressed is a winnable one. Uzbekistan should probably have won all three games but ended up drawing with Australia – who went through relatively unnoticed though, given the problems with Korea and Japan, that is no bad thing. Injuries may cost Uzbekistan but given how open it all is then who knows? Kyrgyzstan gave a good account of themselves in their 2019 debut but slumped to three defeats this time around. India also disappointed with no goals and three defeats.

So far, the west has been the best with Qatar, Iran and Iraq winning all three group games. Qatar, the hosts, did not concede and have looked very smooth indeed with Akram Afif returning to the levels of 2019 in which he helped the Maroons to an impressive title. The demons of 2022 are being destroyed as each game passes. Iran fans were not too enamoured of their coach, Amir Ghalenoei, even before he demanded that they be nicer but striker Mehdi Taremi could be the man that takes the team all the way. Iraq have been excellent, giving Japan a real lesson and evoking memories of their 2007 triumph.

Bahrain, who topped their group above South Korea, and Jordan have looked decent too. Palestine have made headlines just for being there and then delighted everyone by winning a first ever game and then going into the next stage. Oman underachieved – just two points from a team that promised much – while Lebanon fought hard, could easily have made it through, but just did not quite have the quality.

They still contributed to a thrilling group stage and if it all continues then this could end up being the best Asian Cup yet.


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