As we enter the second round of group fixtures in Australia, football writer Babak Golriz looks back on what we can take from the opening games of the Asian Cup.
Arab goalkeepers could be Achilles' Heel
Seven of the eight participants at the recent 22nd Gulf Cup are at the Asian Cup, but they've largely had poor starts. Qatar, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain all lost their opening games, only the UAE and Iraq coming out as winners.
A worrying pattern to emerge from those games was a series of experienced goalkeepers making costly errors.
For instance, undisputed first-choice Qatari stopper, Qasem Burham, has to shoulder blame for at least 3 of the 4 goals his side conceded against the Emiratis.
Likewise, Bahrain ‘keeper Sayyed Jafer's poorly punched clearance landed at Ehsan Hajsafi's feet before half time and he could have arguably done better to tip the lob over the bar but pulled his fingertips away at the last moment.
Waleed Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, dived in slow-motion in an attempt to reach a deflected Chinese free-kick that creeped into the net and Kuwait’s Hameed Yousef conceded 4 against the hosts.
Add to that question marks over Majed Nasser’s position in the UAE goal and each and every goalkeeper from the Gulf needs to improve if the West is to overthrow the East.
Iran support breathes life into tournament
Carlos Queiroz led his team to a hard-fought, but comfortable, 2-0 win over Bahrain in their first match, but what was interesting, was that the game arguably provided the tournament's best atmosphere yet.
Approximately 70,000 Iranians live in Australia and it was clear that most of the 17,712 attendees of the match were made up of them. Singing and cheering on their side from before the kick-off until the last kick of the game, the Rectangular Stadium in Melbourne resembled a mini Azadi Stadium.
It will be interesting to see how the stadium fills up if Iran faces actual hosts Australia later at the tournament. But what is sure is that the Asian Cup will be well served by having the Iranians go far as more of the atmosphere at their games will be seen rather than the empty seats witnessed during North Korea’s game against Uzbekistan.
Were the UAE impressive or Qatar just very poor?
Mahdi Ali's UAE side ripped through Djamel Belmadi's Qatar, the game dominated by Omar Abdulrahman's brilliant creativity.
Two braces from Ahmed Khalil and Ali Mabkhout meant that the UAE scored 4 unanswered goals after trailing to an early Khalfan Ibrahim goal.
The result was a little surprising, but the manner of the convincing victory even more so.
It means that the UAE may clinch a spot in the quarter-finals before playing their final game against Iran. The dominance of the Whites was something that Ali's side had not produced in a while.
Similarly, Qatar had only lost once during their past 16 matches and won the Gulf Cup in November. At the same tournament an abject UAE side fell at the semis.
Going forward, Belmadi must find the right balance over the side's abundance of attackers after looking lopsided in defensive transitions against the UAE, leaving lots of space for Omar to exploit.
Asia’s top teams can win in second gear
During Australia’s convincing 4-1 victory over Kuwait, the Kuwaitis started brightly and took the lead within the first 10 minutes and could have been 2-0 up before half-time. Eventually, Australia’s superiority was telling as they piled on the pressure throughout the second half.
Similarly, South Korea stumbled through Oman in their opening game and Bahrain gave the much-fancied Iran a run for their money
While Japan looked dominant, any side looking to upset Asia’s elite must be far more clinical if they are to take points off the big boys.
Is expansion wise?
The Asian Cup is supposed to bring together the best of the continent’s football nations. It may well be doing so, but there are clear gaps in quality between a number of sides at the current tournament.
Already teams like North Korea and Palestine have benefitted from a side-entry into the major tournament.
A more worrying trend is that the stadiums have been largely empty during a number of less fancied clashes. Other than games that include the likes of Australia, Iran, China and Japan, empty stands have already become the norm. Would Vietnam and Thailand improve those figures at the next tournament? Probably not.
If authorities are interested in developing football in the continent then they should investigate other avenues and not expand the tournament just yet.
Australia coach Ange Postecoglou says captain Mile Jedinak could miss the rest of the Asian Cup group stages after injuring his ankle.
Postecoglou said Jedinak, who will miss today’s game with Oman, was also “not certain” for the Socceroos’ final Group A clash with South Korea on Saturday.
The Crystal Palace midfielder was seen wearing a moonboot brace after Friday’s 4-1 win over Kuwait.
“We’ll assess it as we go for the Korea game. Obviously it’s nothing major that will keep him out for a length of time,” Postecoglou said.
He added: “We’ll assess it on a daily basis. Mile’s pretty keen to play and if he’s anywhere near fit he’ll play. But at this stage we’re taking it day by day.”
Postecoglou also said he planned to make “at least a couple of changes” to his line-up against Oman to keep players fresh for the rest of the tournament.
Friday’s thumping win left Australia in the box seat to progress from Group A as they seek to win the Asian Cup for the first time.
“If we’re going to play at the tempo we want to, 11 players aren’t going to do it so we’ll make at least a couple of changes,” confirmed the coach.
Meanwhile, South Korea coach Uli Stielike urged his players to find a killer touch against defence-minded Kuwait today. The Taeguk Warriors are far from prolific and they only defeated Oman 1-0 in their opener.
Stielike said: “Our problem was that during a very good phase when we came out for the second half we had 70 percent of ball possession and we had three clear chances,” Steilike said. “In that moment you have to kill the game. You have to make it 2-0.”
Ahmed Khalil is an afterthought at Al Ahli, the forward Cosmin Olaroiu turns to when all else fails. But for the UAE, he remains as vital as ever.
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Mahdi Ali’s trust in the ungainly 23-year-old has often raised eyebrows. Yet, the Whites boss rarely goes without reward.
Six starts for the UAE in recent months have brought four goals. This is one more than in 13 forgettable Arabian Gulf League appearances this term, eight of those coming from the bench.
Ali Mabkhout and, above everyone else, Omar Abdulrahman provide the gloss and steal the headlines. In Khalil, Ali has an unheralded trooper he knows he can rely on.
His national coach knows him better than most, the pair going on a journey together from youth-team level to starring on a continental stage.
This was the story once again in Sunday’s 4-1 thrashing of Qatar. A rival hotly-tipped after wrenching away the UAE’s Gulf Cup crown in November were put to the sword, though not without any panic.
Khalfan Ibrahim’s characteristic stroke of genius to lob the recalled goalkeeper Majed Nasser saw the UAE facing an early deficit despite a bright start. A spark was needed.
Khalil duly obliged either side of the interval, his brace matched by blossoming Jazira front-man Mabkhout to secure a memorable 4-1 triumph that perfectly sets up quarter-final qualification.
Khalil’s efforts were not things of beauty, bundling in the leveller before benefitting from Qasem Burhan’s bizarre goalkeeping on a free-kick for his second.
We shouldn’t, by now, be surprised by Khalil’s contribution. He regularly rises above mixed domestic form to excel in the UAE jersey.
His three goals were essential to the 2013 Gulf Cup success, providing the difference in the narrow semi-final triumph against Kuwait and becoming the tournament’s joint leading scorer with three.
A series of wretched displays in the 2014 edition were redeemed as he scored two high-quality goals in the sickening 3-2 semi-final defeat to hosts Saudi Arabia.
The formula seems clear, play him enough and he will deliver. His combination of size and skill is rare, the lack of top-draw consistency the only source of frustration.
No such problems are apparent in Omar’s game. The Middle East’s finest player put on a masterclass against the Maroons, his supreme talent shining like a beacon. The Al Ain star was the source of wave after wave of attacks. Remarkable for a player sidelined since late November with an ankle knock.
A series of flicks and turns brought gasps from the crowd. His hand was present in the first and last goals, showing laudable drive to push forward on the counter-attack to set up Mabkhout’s tap-in on 89 minutes with an audacious nutmeg that let everyone in attendance know they were in the presence of greatness.
Scarily, for the opposition, he can only get better once his match fitness improves.
Hamdan Al Kamali also provided a positive influence. His aggression was missed while injured during November’s Gulf Cup, his confidence bringing the ball out from centre-back a plus when properly focused.
Bahrain should provide cannon fodder on Thursday. Victory will all but guarantee progression to the last eight.
A marker has been laid down. It would be a shame to waste it.