Iran laid down a marker to claim a record-equalling fourth Asian Cup title with a 5-0 romp against debutants Yemen.
Three goals in 13 first-half minutes sent them on their way in Abu Dhabi, with Mehdi Taremi bagging a brace and Ashkan Dejagah making it 3-0. Sardar Azmoun and Saman Ghoddos sealed the win in the second half.
Here we take a look at three of the game’s talking points.
ARE WE LOOKING AT THE CHAMPIONS?
This was by far the best performance in the tournament so far. OK, so we’re only seven games in and a comfortable victory was only secured after minnows Yemen enjoyed an impressive start.
But once Iran found their feet they moved through the gears effortlessly. They of course have pedigree in this tournament, they are three-time winners (joint second most titles along with Saudi Arabia).
They are the highest-ranked Asian team in the FIFA standings and their position at 29th is the highest they have ascended since 2001 and the heyday of Ali Daei.
Their standing is well earned and has been honed during eight years under the tutelage of former Real Madrid and Portugal head coach Carlos Queiroz. Under the 65-year-old they have risen 37 places from 66th and been steadily on the rise in recent years.
Since the 2014 World Cup Queiroz’s Iran have only tasted defeat six times in 54 games, triumphant on 37 occasions. They are battle-hardened and have matchwinners in abundance.
FROM GROUP OF DEATH TO DEVASTATING
This is the Iran we all wanted to see at the World Cup. They will curse the fact they found themselves pitted in the Group of Death alongside powerhouses Spain and Portugal, as well as African heavyweights Morocco, which left a star-studded, exciting team with a near impossible task of making the knockout stages.
They were forced to adopt a more workmanlike, defensive, disruptive approach in order to counteract the threats of Cristiano Ronaldo, Diego Costa and Co, rather than showcase their attacking talent. Their only defeat was a 1-0 reversal at the hands of La Roja.
That attacking threat was abundantly clear in this swashbuckling victory. Livewire forwards Taremi and Azmoun (he of 26 goals in just 42 caps) ran riot, while former Fulham and Wolfsburg winger Dejagah, Mehdi Torabi and Vahid Amiri constantly probed.
They didn’t even have to summon Brighton bombshell Alireza Jahanbakhsh – the 25-year-old winger who laid waste to the Eredevisie last season with a league-leading 21 goals and joint third most assists (12) – from the bench. The opposition may have been tame, but this was far more like it.
YEMEN HOLD HEADS HIGH
At first glance it appears as if Iran’s 5-0 win was a mauling of the minnows. It was, but that does not tell the full story.
Yemen made their Asian Cup debut on Monday yet for an initial 10-minute period at Al Jazira’s Mohammed Bin Zayed Stadium, they looked like seasoned veterans, taking the game to more illustrious and established opponents. Had it not been for goalkeeper Saoud Al Sowadi’s foam fingers, Iran might have toiled much longer for an opening goal.
And while Iran eventually showed their undoubted class, Jan Kocian’s Yemen can hold their heads high.
Then North Yemen, they made their bow in world football at the 1965 Pan Arab Games in Egypt. Three years later Iran would embark on a 12-year reign of dominance across Asia as they won the first of three unprecedented straight Asian Cup titles.
The country has far more problems to prioritise than football at the moment. But against one of the favourites, they did not disgrace themselves.
Two teams at opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of Asian Cup royalty meet in Dubai on Tuesday, as three-time winners Saudi Arabia take on North Korea, who finished fourth in 1980.
The Saudis are coming into the tournament on the back of a disappointing 2018 World Cup, while a youthful-looking Korean side appointed a 35-year-old new manager just last month.
Here, we look ahead to the game.
Can Saudi recover their reputation?
Heavyweights of Asia, there can be no doubt, but the Green Falcons are coming into the Asian Cup with their wings certainly clipped following a group stage exit at last summer’s World Cup.
Saudi are the joint-second most-successful nation at Asian Cups, having lifted three crowns, and they will have fond memories of the UAE, having hoisted their last title in the Emirates 23 years ago.
They are one of the favourites for the trophy and are the fourth highest ranked Asian nation in FIFA (69th, Iran are 29th, Japan 50th and South Korea 53rd).
Yet, there is can be no doubt Juan Antonio Pizzi’s men have something to prove. They left Russia with a morale-boosting 2-1 win over Mohamed Salah’s Egypt, but the 5-0 pummelling on opening night by the hosts will still be ringing in their ears.
Results since that fine victory over the Pharaohs have been decent, one defeat to the mighty Brazil punctuating an otherwise unbeaten five-game run. Stalwarts Osama Hawsawi and Taisir Al Jassim (138 and 134 caps respectively) have gone, ushering in a new era. Fahad Al Muwallad, who spent time on loan at La Liga’s Levante last season, leads the new wave. And they will know reputation needs to be restored.
Giving youth a chance
AFC #AsianCup UAE 2019— مجلس أبوظبي الرياضي (@AbuDhabiSC) 7 January 2019
North Korea 🇰🇵 Press Conference
Jong Il-gwan: We are ready for @SaudiNT 🇸🇦 as we have prepared ourselves to games of such calibre in our pre-tournament preparation. #BringingAsiaTogether pic.twitter.com/0kFqqg5vCi
Naming former players as coaches is nothing new – but not many get the top job aged just 35.
Former Norway striker Jorn Andersen declined to extend his two-year contract with Chollima just last month, resulting in national team selectors turning to a tenacious former midfielder who helped his nation qualify for just a second-ever World Cup in 2010 – Kim Yong-jun.
Despite his youthful years, Kim is no stranger to management, having taken charge of Pyongyang City, where he started his playing career, as long ago as 2010.
After leaving the post in 2013 he spent the next four years rising through the national ranks, acting as assistant of the under-16s, 17s and U-23 North Korea teams, although his selection to lead his country into the Asian Cup will have raised some eyebrows.
He has selected a young squad for the continental competition – only goalkeeper and captain Ri Myong-guk and defender Kim Song-gi are above 30.
Kim will be hoping for a better result from the last meeting between the two sides in the competition, when Saudi mauled Korea 4-1 in Melbourne in 2015.
Pizzi feels the Green Falcons’ rich history at the tournament will count for nothing in their opening clash with Korea.
“Previous results in this competition aren’t something we can depend on in tomorrow’s game,” said the 50-year-old, who won the Copa America with Chile in 2016. “I think history doesn’t count in this situation because you have to prove you are better than the opponent.”
The Koreans have not won a match at the Asian Cup since 1980 and boss Kim is expecting that to change in the UAE.
“Of course I am expecting us to have a better result than in our tournament history and I have told the players that every player has to be together and play with team spirit for all 90 minutes,” he said. “Everyone has to do their job.”
The Falcon has landed in Dubai. 😀 pic.twitter.com/6ExxnvMFVg— Saudi National Team (@SaudiNT_EN) 7 January 2019
PLAYER TO WATCH
Saudi have been blessed with wiry, wafer-thin wizards in recent years, and 21-year-old Ghareeb looks like he could be the latest off the production line. With the likes of Fahad Al Muwallad, Yahya Al Shehri and Salem Al Dawsari pulling the attacking strings, watch out for the Al Ahli Jeddah product should he get his chance.
The 5ft 5in forward has three goals in 13 games for Ahli this season and already has a goal at senior international level after earning five caps, having been rushed through the youth ranks.
Plenty of South Koreans have starred in European football, but stars from the north are few and far between. That might be about to change with 20-year-old forward Han, who joined Serie A side Cagliari’s academy in 2015 and has made a handful of league appearances while spending the last two seasons on loan at Perugia in the league below.
His agent Sandro Stemperini revealed in October that Italian behemoths Juventus allegedly tried to sign him last January. With just two caps to his name, can Han become an Asian Cup hero?
Srecko Katanec has promised those watching back home that Iraq will not disappoint at the Asian Cup.
The nation will forever be entwined with one of the most stunning stories in the competition’s history, with their 2007 success coming in the midst of such strife in the country.
While Katanec cannot guarantee a repeat, the Slovenian is confident his players will do him proud in their Group D opener against Vietnam.
“I promise the Iraqi people to do with what everything we can on the field,” said Katanec, whose side also faces Iran and Yemen in the group stage. “I have so much trust in our players.
“I know very well that the Iraq people love football and have so much enthusiasm. I promise I’ll choose the perfect XI for the game.”
This is just Vietnam’s fourth appearance in the tournament but, having conceded 28 goals in their 10 prior Asian Cup games, they were more resilient in defence during their recent AFF Suzuki Cup triumph.
Vietnam only faced 7.5 shots per game on the way to that success, meaning Iraq may find it tricky to get into areas where they can let fly.
However, ruling the roost of southeast Asia is one thing, the whole continent another, and centre-back Ahmed Ibrahim is confident his side can pick apart the Vietnamese back line in Abu Dhabi.
“We have concentrated on videos of the Vietnamese team and we know their defensive faults,” said Ibrahim. “We will try and use our knowledge tomorrow to get the three points and have a good start. We respect Vietnam and we respect their ambitions, but we are in a good mindset to win this game.”