A pair of coaching grandees will clash in Asian Cup 2019’s quarter-finals when Marcello Lippi’s China meet Carlos Queiroz’s Iran.
The latter’s tempestuous eight-year stint at the helm of Team Melli has seen him make history with successive World Cup qualifications, but fail to end a continental trophy drought stretching back to 1976.
Lippi’s lucrative return to Chinese football after a short period of retirement has yet to catch fire. He’ll need to lean on all the lessons learned during a celebrated 37-year coaching career to advance at Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium against a stronger opponent.
Here are the talking points:
For all the undoubted talent on the pitch, most eyes at MBZ will settle on the battle in the dugouts.
Queiroz, 65, counts Real Madrid and Portugal among his former employers.
Furthermore, the Mozambique-born tactician has demonstrated unsurpassed mastery of the political machinations that are unique to Iran’s febrile football environment.
Lippi, 70, lifted the World Cup with Italy in 2006 and claimed 13 major titles at Juventus. His deep tactical knowledge and ability to change a match – present during Sunday’s essential half-time formation switch that turned defeat to victory in the round of 16 against Thailand – are unrivaled.
The pair’s influence on proceedings in Abu Dhabi will be sizeable. Intriguingly, both face defining nights when it comes to their immediate legacies.
Queiroz has admitted he is “honoured” by interest from Colombia. Years of flirtations and exclamations about an exit from Iran should finally come to fruition after this tournament.
For all his unprecedented success with Team Melli, the lack of silverware is glaring. Overall victory in the UAE will make him a legend, plus temper painful memories of 2015’s epic quarter-final loss to Iraq.
Lippi is expected to resume his retirement when China’s run in the UAE ends.
An inability to bring through a future generation has drawn criticism, plus correct the woeful World Cup 2018 qualifying campaign he inherited. Scorers against Thailand were 33-year-old Xiao Zhi and 32-year-old Gao Lin, while his Guangzhou Evergrande general Zheng Zhi remains skipper at 38.
But upset Iran and a positive final chapter can still be written.
What to do about Wu?
Wu Lei’s continued scintillating form with Chinese Super League champions Shanghai SIPG marked him out as a forward to watch in the Emirates.
A two-goal salvo of staggering quality against the Philippines, however, hid the damage caused by a horrific collarbone injury suffered in the opening 2-1 win against Kyrgyzstan.
The 27-year-old toiled against Thailand until Lippi brought on support in the shape of veteran Guangzhou R&F striker Xiao Zhi.
But will the Italian be prepared to sacrifice his favoured 4-3-3 formation against an Iran that are so strong in midfield?
A 2-0 victory against Gulf Cup holders Oman – a fourth-successive clean sheet – in the round of 16 is respectable.
For Team Melli, however, the lack of fluidity on show provides worry about a deep run in the competition.
The aerial bombardment put on the Omani defence is not likely to gain such success against China. Suspension for Trabzonspor linkman Vahid Amiri adds a further headache for Queiroz, plus Majid Hosseini’s surprising fragility at centre-back.
Karim Ansarifard or Saman Ghoddos should replace the former, while Hossein Kanaanizadegan has played twice this tournament in defence.
Queiroz much choose the right options. Something intangible is missing at present that would make Iran clear favourites.
The UAE and Australia’s quarter-final at Asian Cup 2019 is set to provide an interesting scrap between hosts and champions.
It will also feature some of the best players in west Asia meeting their rivals from the east.
Here are the pick of the key battles on Friday at Hazza bin Zayed Stadium:
FARES JUMA V JAMIE MACLAREN
The experienced Juma – who was captain against Bahrain – is back in the XI because of Khalifa Mubarak’s injury. A hulking frame should mean he’ll dominate one-goal Jamie Maclaren physically, but he must avoid any leg races.
BANDAR AL AHBABI V CHRIS IKONOMIDIS
Al Ahbabi is a converted winger and it shows. His dynamism is much needed in a staid UAE side. It does, however, provide opportunity. Ikonomidis’ one goal and four assists in the UAE points to danger when he enters Al Ahbabi’s vacated space.
MAJED HASSAN V MASSIMO LUONGO
Khamis Esmail’s ban will see Hassan start. He is more energetic, but lacks his compatriot’s passing range. Luongo will not replicate the banned Tom Rogic’s creativity. He’ll, instead, facilitate a rampaging role for Jackson Irvine.
ALI MABKHOUT V TRENT SAINSBURY
One of Asia’s best strikers will come up against the continent’s premier centre-back. Mabkhout has three goals in four games, yet was largely wasteful versus Bahrain. In Sainsbury’s three games in the UAE, Australia have kept two clean sheets.
A hosts v holders contest awaits on Friday when the UAE meet Australia in Asian Cup 2019’s last quarter-final.
Neither nation has enjoyed a plain run to this point. The biggest upset at the tournament to date came in the opening group matches when the Socceroos were humbled 1-0 by Jordan, while a pair of penalty shootout saves from goalkeeper Mathew Ryan were required to see off Uzbekistan in the round of 16 after a goalless draw.
For the UAE, they’ve stumbled past weaker opposition. In the previous stage, they twice gave up leads versus tournament-debutants Kyrgyzstan prior to substitute Ahmed Khalil’s extra-time spot-kick securing a 3-2 win.
Both sides have key personnel missing and plenty to prove, meaning an intriguing tie awaits at Al Ain’s Hazza bin Zayed Stadium. Here are the talking points:
Zacch’s plan comes to fruition?
Maybe, this was Zaccheroni’s plan all along.
Stultifying tactics have been the main feature of the Whites’ play throughout the tournament, even though they are joint-third highest scorers among the quarter-finalists.
Only in the 1-1 draw with Thailand that closed their commitments in Group A did three recognised defensive-minded midfielders not start.
Against Kyrgyzstan, Zaccheroni chose to narrow the pitch in a 4-3-2-1 formation. Chances came and went through the unusually wasteful Ali Mabkhout, prior to his redemptive goal and penalty win, but the overall performance in the 3-2 extra-time triumph was a tough watch for the near 18,000 supporters at Zayed Sport City.
Entertainment, however, is low down the list of priorities from now on. Simply finding a way past the celebrated Socceroos is all that is required.
The UAE have been here before. Under Mahdi Ali, they wowed four years ago Down Under ahead of a meeting with Javier Aguirre’s hotly fancied champions, Japan, in the last eight.
A defensive masterclass from the underdogs – allied with some suspect finishing – then saw a memorable upset recorded on the way to a memorable third-placed finish. Australia ended their run in the semis.
Few will complain about the method if history repeats itself.
With the competition nearly three weeks old, injuries and suspensions are taking effect.
For the Socceroos, a soft yellow card for majestic playmaker Tom Rogic against the Uzbeks guarantees a reshuffle. Hertha Berlin winger Mathew Leckie promising first minutes of the tournament after injury also gave Graham Arnold plenty to ponder.
In response, the head coach cryptically stated he could he “could change the system and play with two strikers, two number nines, we could play with a diamond midfield”.
In all likelihood the 4-3-3 formation will remain, Queens Park Rangers midfielder Massimo Luongo coming in for the banned Rogic. Leckie’s recovery has put pressure on one-goal-striker Jamie Maclaren’s spot in the starting side.
Al Jazira centre-back Fares Juma replaced the seriously injured Khalifa Mubarak on Monday for the UAE and will do the same job from the start against the Socceroos. Shabab Al Ahli Dubai Club’s Majed Hassan is a seamless replacement for Al Wasl’s suspended anchor man Esmail.
A more-taxing decision for Zaccheroni is whether to award Khalil’s continued heroics off the bench with a first start in the UAE. This would probably be at the expense of fitful Jazira creator Khalfan Mubarak.
@socceroos skipper Mark Milligan says the return of Mat Leckie adds 'another dimension' as Australia looks forward to an @afcasiancup quarter final with hosts United Arab Emirates on Saturday morning (AEDT).— Socceroos (@Socceroos) January 23, 2019
👉 https://t.co/87FTYxNZVN#TogetherAsOne #AsianCup2019 #GoSocceroos pic.twitter.com/kn39n2ZIIs
The influence of the video-assistant referees will, belatedly, be felt in the quarter-finals.
Like at World Cup 2018, it will only be used for: goal or no goal, penalty-kicks, red cards and mistaken identity decisions.
The results of both nations up to this point may have changed if it had been applied earlier.
In the rollercoaster 3-2 triumph against Syria in Group B, a clear hand ball from Socceroos skipper Mark Milligan in the box went unpunished. Moments later, Omar Al Somah tripped over a fellow Syrian and a spot-kick was erroneously awarded.
The UAE also required the softest of handball calls against substitute Mohamed Marhoon to salvage an opening 1-1 draw against the Bahrainis, through Khalil’s 88th-minute penalty.
Either way, there can be few legitimate complaints about the officiating from now on.