Saudi Arabia maintained their 100-per-cent record at Asian Cup 2019 and eased into the knockouts with an imposing 2-0 win against Lebanon at Al Maktoum Stadium.
Fahad Al Muwallad took advantage of slapstick defending in the 12th minute to lash home and then Housain Al Mogahwi volleyed in on 67 minutes from close range.
A pair of losses for the Cedars, however, makes progression from Group E a distant prospect. Here is the report card:
Maatouk is still magic
‘Functional’ is the word you’d use to describe Lebanon upon their Cup return after 19 years away.
It is not, however, a phrase you’d impart on Hassan Maatouk.
Sadly for the ex-Arabian Gulf League favourite, his team-mates just aren’t on the same wavelength. This was exemplified when a darting run ended up with striker Hilal El-Helwe screwing wide – a minute later, the Saudis went ahead.
Pizzi has Saudis purring
The portents are ominous for Saudis’ rivals.
Two Group E matches and two confident wins. They last achieved this in 1996, also on Emirati soil, when a third – and so far final – Asian Cup was claimed.
This edition is in the embryonic stage, but the Green Falcons and Iran look a cut apart.
The former exude confidence across the park. Al Shabab winger Hattan Bahebri outplayed celebrated ex-Villarreal loanee Salem Al Dawsari once again, plus got a delightful first assist in the UAE through his cross for Al Ahli Jeddah’s Al Mogahwi.
It’s now two goals in two matches for Al Ittihad’s false No9 Al Muwallad. An apparent area of weakness appears strong.
GOAL ⚽️! 67' Hussain Al Moqawhi doubles the Saudi's lead!— #AsianCup2019 (@afcasiancup) January 12, 2019
🇱🇧 LEB 0 - 2 KSA 🇸🇦 pic.twitter.com/Mf5uhw7ydk
Radulovic’s immediate job prospects
An unwelcome hat-trick may be completed at Asian Cup 2019.
Milovan Rajevac with Thailand and Bernd Stange at Syria have been sacked after poor early results. Would successive losses for Lebanon – a first for their history at the tournament – lead to Montenegro’s Miodrag Radulovic’s four-year reign coming to a premature end?
A refreshed Lebanon, under new leadership, could thrash North Korea on Thursday and still proceed thanks to the 24-team competition’s new format which rewards the four-best third-placed finishers…
Saudi defence is up in the air
For a nation with the nickname ‘Green Falcons’, the Saudis have looked noticeably uncomfortable in the air.
Han Kwang-son of North Korea ballooned a free header at 1-0 before his side imploded.
Against Lebanon, Al Nasr-owned Joan Oumari and defensive midfielder Felix Michel both wasted opportunities when unmarked from set-pieces. The retirement of 138-cap centre-back Osama Hawsawi is being felt.
12th min GOAL: Lebanon’s defence implodes, a rushed clearance rebounding off centre-back Alexander Michel and into the path of the grateful Al Muwallad to rifle home.
67th min GOAL: The exceptional Bahebri looks up, picks out Al Mogahwi and the on-rushing Al Ahli Jeddah midfielder slides it in. Game over.
The assist on the second goal from none other than Hatan Bahbri. 🇸🇦💚 pic.twitter.com/hg5ruY75gM— Saudi National Team (@SaudiNT_EN) January 12, 2019
TACTICAL TALKING POINT
THE ENGINE ROOM
Saudi boss Juan Antonio Pizzi is Argentina-born, but seven years in Spanish football – and 22 caps for La Furia Roja – means he is inculcated in his adopted nation’s footballing traditions.
Lebanon tried to use their physicality, in speed through former Arabian Gulf League-favourite Maatouk and size through strapping AFC Eskilstuna anchor man Felix Michel, to unsettle them.
Instead, centre midfielders Abdullah Otayf, Al Mogahwi and Abdulaziz Al Bishi popped the ball around the resplendent, redeveloped Maktoum with impunity in a 4-1-4-1 formation. This trio attempted 223 passes – Lebanon’s entire side recorded 276.
Just like watching Spain. Kind of…
Lebanon – C
If, just if, El Helwe had found the back of the net rather than the corner flag on 11 minutes, could this have been different?
Probably not. Lebanon were outclassed and look a long-shot for a best-third-placed finish.
Saudi Arabia – B
The Saudis are making this edition look easy.
Six unanswered goals, two clean sheets and five different scorers. Bring on the knockouts.
The credentials of Japan’s new generation will be examined once again on Sunday when they meet Gulf Cup holders Oman.
Wednesday’s rollercoaster 3-2 victory against Turkmenistan for the Samurai Blue presented an unconvincing start to life without the likes of Keisuke Honda, Shinji Kagawa and Makoto Hasebe in this Asian Cup.
Imminent opponents Oman opened up with a frustrating, late 2-1 loss to Uzbekistan in Group F and will hold realistic hopes of unsettling the record four-time champions at Zayed Sports City.
Here are the talking points:
GETTING THEIR BEARINGS
It was always going to be impossible to predict how this much-changed Japan would get on in their opening skirmish.
From the side that gave Belgium such a fright in World Cup 2018’s round of 16, there was a new head coach (Olympic leader Hajime Moriyasu was promoted after Akira Nishino stepped down) and five changes to the XI.
These alterations represented the loss of a combined 343 international caps, although Real Betis schemer Takashi Inui’s experience of 31 run-outs was available on the substitutes’ bench at Al Nahyan Stadium thanks to his late call-up because of injury to promising Portimonense playmaker Shoya Nakajima.
Uncertainty abounded against the Turkmen. From surprise new first-choice goalkeeper Shuichi Gonda making two awful mistakes, to established Werder Bremen forward Yuya Osako managing to score twice yet still be unconvincing.
Veteran Galatasaray full-back Yuto Nagatomo captured the uncertain mood in the camp.
“We struggled against Turkmenistan but it was very important for us players to know what the AFC Asian Cup is,” the 32-year-old told www.the-afc.com.
“We will use the experience gained against Turkmenistan to good effect.”
This fresh phalanx of players now know what competitive football is.
Oman are ranked 82nd by FIFA, 32 places below the Japanese. But Turkmenistan are placed 127 and they caused unexpected difficulties.
Rookie mistakes, and senior players not carrying their weight, cannot continue.
OMAN’S MOUNTAIN TO CLIMB
It is a year since UAE superstar Omar Abdulrahman’s pair of missed penalties earned a surprise victory in the Gulf Cup’s decider.
But the enduring positive vibes from this triumph threatened to be chipped away in the Emirates by a final pair of friendlies that included a 5-0 chastening by Australia and 2-0 defeat to Thailand.
This, however, was not the case against the Uzbeks. They were good value at 1-1 thanks to Muhsen Al Ghassani artfully worked leveller and the relief on the Uzbek faces when Eldor Shomurodov struck in the 85th minute spoke volumes.
No wonder boss Pim Verbeek was so confident pre-match.
He told reporters: “We are looking forward to playing probably one of the best teams in Asia.
“We won’t fear them as we need the points after being so unlucky against Uzbekistan.”
The loss of Al Hilal goalkeeper Ali Al Habsi to injury was felt by the flimsy goalkeeping for Shomurodov’s clincher by Faiyz Al Rashidi.
Playing without fear is no problem. It is these such errors that must be eradicated against Samurai Blue.
CALL FOR INUI?
It could have been the dramatic changing of the guard, but it was illustrative to see Moriyasu’s reluctance to look to his bench against the Turk.
In a match that they trailed 1-0 at half time, only Shimizu S-Pulse forward Koya Kitagawa was called into action from the substitutes’ bench.
If the unconvincing display in Abu Dhabi has left an impression on Japan’s boss, it might be to inject some experience.
Inui has got no assists or goals in eight La Liga matches for Betis this term, yet he shone at the World Cup. Forward Yoshinori Muto is another option who could belie his poor club form, where he has one in 13 for Newcastle United.
North Korea are convinced they can weather the suspension of Juventus target Han Kwang-song and get their knockout hopes back on track at Asian Cup 2019 with victory against Qatar, according to head coach Kim Yong-jun.
Cagliari-owned Han, 20, picked up two bookings in eight first-half minutes during Tuesday’s 4-0 thrashing by Group E-favourites Saudi Arabia. This means he will not be present at Al Ain’s Khalifa bin Zayed Stadium on Sunday when the men from the Hermit kingdom attempt to avoid almost-certain elimination.
“I can say that without him there will be some effect but I don’t think it will be too big because we have some good players like our captain, Jong Il-gwan, and Pak Kwang Ryong, who plays in Austria, so I don’t think there will be a big effect for the second match,” said Kim, who was a playing member of the World Cup 2010 squad and was appointed to this post only last month.
“Our primary target in this tournament is to qualify for the next round, so for the last three days we have focused in training on the mistakes we made in the first game.”
Han has gone goalless in five Serie B run-outs this term on loan at Perugia.
North Korea were, ominously, beaten 4-0 by Bahrain in their final friendly and these defensive woes continued at Rashid Stadium.
Kim, 35, declared his major goal in the interim has been to build-up the confidence of his troops.
He said: “I didn’t expect that we would concede so many goals in the first game and the players’ spirit was a little bit down and I had to spend more time to cheer the players up and have them mentally ready for this game.
“They’re in a good spirit to win this game and to create the possibility to advance to the next round.”
Elsewhere in the pool, Turkmenistan will take confidence from a rollercoaster 3-2 loss to record four-time champions Japan when they meet Uzbekistan at the Rashid.
The 10-man Uzbeks required a late goal from FC Rostov forward Eldor Shomurodov to defeat Gulf Cup holders Oman 2-1.