So the group stage is done, and we managed to come out with 24 games without a single draw among them! There has been some fantastic entertainment, a few surprises, and lots of goals. Martin, Tom & Amro review the group stage and pick their favourite moments and lots more.
Player who has most impressed
Kim Jin-hyeon (South Korea)
Because he literally came out of nowhere to save the day for South Korea. Twice.
Plying his trade outside his own country for a long time and picking up only a handful of caps over the years, Kim Jin-hyeon had hardly been considered to be Jung Sung-ryong’s successor before he was eventually entrusted with a starting berth by Uli Stielike. Yet, it’s been quite clear for us to see that the Cerezo Osaka no. 1 goalkeeper certainly was the right choice.
Since the start of 2014, Kim Jin-hyeon has been on the winning side five times out of six appearance in South Korea’s goal, while conceding only twice along the way. And those two clean sheets kept at this Asian Cup are mostly down to his own work. Kim Jin-hyeon single handedly preserved Korea’s lead against Oman by tipping a late header onto the bar; and he was excellent in the late stages of the Australia game too.
In other words, to see Kim Jin-hyeon in action must be a truly refreshing experience for every South Korean supporter who had been forced to watch the unconvincing Jung Sung-ryong for quite a while up until recently.
The 27-year-old custodian, on the contrary, seems to be full of confidence – which is reflected particularly by his assured presence in the air. Then add his fine reflexes and flawless positioning on top of that, and you‘ve finally got a goalkeeper who can be easily relied upon.
Ahmed Ali Mabkhout (United Arab Emirates)
After a whirlwind 2014, Ahmed Ali Mabkhout was the name on everyone’s lips going into the Asian Cup. The striker had been on one of the hottest streaks in the whole of the continent, including a Golden Boot performance in the recent Gulf Cup. Australia was seen as the true test of Mabkhout’s ability to live up to the hype, against a much stronger standard of opposition on a regular basis, and what has followed has been definitely impressive.
A brace against Gulf Cup champions Qatar in the first game set up his tournament; the first a typical poacher’s effort after a spilt free kick, the second linking up well with Omar Abdulrahman before out foxing the Qatari defence to provide space for the finish. He picked up where he left off in the much tighter affair against Bahrain, where he wasted no time, scoring within 15 seconds of the kick off (an Asian Cup record), showing his pace and of course his ultra-accurate finishing to set his country on their way. The final match against Iran might have not provided Mabkhout with his fourth goal, however he remained a menace against one of the strongest defences in Asia and could’ve added to his total in the second period.
All this promise for a forward who doesn’t necessarily fit the criteria for a usual out and out centre striker. Often deployed cutting in from the right, as he has been doing for his club side Al-Jazira, Mabkhout has benefited from the slide through balls from his colleagues behind him and linking in tandem with Ahmed Khalil who has been deployed in a more orthodox central attacking role. With plaudits already being shared around Asia, inevitable approaches are likely to come from Europe sooner rather than later. A mouth-watering tie against Japan offers Mabkhout the true stage needed to illustrate his capabilities ever further.
Player who has least impressed
Khalfan Ibrahim (Qatar)
If ever a player had a chance to make a tournament his, then this was that tournament for Ibrahim Khalfan. Long hailed as an up and coming Asian star, he had an enviable roll of personal honours including the Asian player of the Year in 2006, Best Arab Player in 2007 & Qatar Player of the Year in 2013. He just needed a major continental tournament to stake his claim as a Qatari legend even midway through his career.
With Qatar’s form going into the tournament unparalleled in Asia, his first goal, a delightful chip against group rivals UAE promised great things. But that was as good as it got for Khalfan Ibrahim. They slipped to a 4-1 defeat in that game and never recovered, losing the subsequent two games and exiting in hugely disappointing fashion after their amazing year in 2014.
A disappointing tournament for him and his country will have many asking questions and rightly so. He will be a veteran striker in 2022 when his country host the World Cup, and you have to wonder if this was his best chance to carry his team to greatness. Like in Omar Abdulrahman’s case, does he now move away from Qatar to try to improve as a player? I personally highly doubt he will, and it will be to his detriment and to the whole of West Asian football if he doesn’t.
Ismaeel Abdulatif (Bahrain)
This tournament was supposed to be his bounce back arena. Together with the whole team Ismaeel Abdulatif experienced a fruitless – or in fact goalless – Gulf Cup, and so he was automatically expected to make up for all the November disappointment here in Australia.
But he didn’t, not even remotely. While Bahrain as a whole did leave a rather good impression, it’s no coincidence that their sole victory came from the only match Abdulatif didn’t take any part in.
This side was simply led by Jaycee John & Faouzi Aaish, whereas the Bahraini all-time leading goalscorer spent the whole first game arguing with the referee and being next to useless; only to make a brief, uneventful cameo in the following match.
What makes this meltdown of a former star even more alarming is that – in a perfect world – Ismaeel Abdulatif should actually be peaking at the moment. Yet, the reality seems to be very different and it’s starting to be clear that his most productive period was, and always will be, 2009-2011.
During that interval, he managed to clinch a spot in the 2010 World Cup Qualification final play-off round for Bahrain and fire four impressive goals past India at the 2011 Asian Cup; becoming the first Arab in tournament’s history to do so.
Ismaeel Abdulatif is 28 years old now, hence – in a perfect world – he‘d still have one more Asian Cup in him. Instead, he appears to be way past it.
Team who has most impressed
A team that has divided opinion throughout the tournament so far. Only the most ardent and slightly delusional China fan would have foreseen them topping a group that included Saudi Arabia (who topped their qualifying group against China & Iraq) and Uzbekistan. Many predicted they would not even make it out of their group. A lack of forward players in the squad selection dashed any hopes the fans had left going into the tournament.
They then went and demolished everyone’s expectations by topping the group with a perfect haul of points. Their well drilled defence frustrated Saudi in the first game, they then went on and beat fancied Uzbekistan after coming back from a goal down, then finished with a victory over North Korea to set up a Quarter Final match with Australia. They may not be the most exciting team to watch at the tournament but they are a decent outfit, and they follow the tactics set out by Alain Perrin well.
They could well upset Australia in their Quarter Final match.
Those, who‘ve listened to our pre-Asian Cup podcast, should already know that I wasn’t very confident about the hosts and their chances to have a really good tournament on home soil. To be more precise, it was their mental strength which I doubted the most, as Postecoglou’s team is still a young, inexperienced one.
Therefore, I have to now admit I’m pleasantly surprised by how convincingly The Socceroos have so far performed at this Asian Cup. Even though they conceded an early goal in their opener, Australia went on to complete a magnificent comeback against Kuwait en route to the Oman destruction in the second match.
Here, I bet not even Australians themselves saw something like this coming. After all, in the run-up of the tournament Postecoglou still looked to be ironing out way too many things. Yet somehow, we can now see plenty of question marks more or less vanishing.
The emergence of the young centre back Trent Sainsbury couldn’t have been timed better, for example, as he seems to be the real deal and an instant upgrade to Alex Wilkinson. And virtually the same goes for Massimo Luongo, an exciting attacking midfielder whose impressive passing range & vision have made a huge difference in The Socceroos‘ transition play.
Apart from these talented and immediately influential individuals, there are also many actual signs of some collective improvement, and the one that strikes you at first glance is certainly an equal goal distribution. An incredible number of 8 different players account for 8 Australian tallies in order to let us forget about the well-documented and slowly disappearing reliance on Tim Cahill.
To sum up, the Asian Cup hosts have seriously come on in leaps and bounds since the World Cup. And even if they don’t claim a title ultimately, there’s definitely something to build on.
Team who has least impressed
With arguably the strongest league in Asia spawning countless talented stars for the Saudis, they came into the tournament with decent expectations after a mostly mediocre decade of football for the once proud powerhouse of the continent.
But they left their fans with more questions than answers after exiting the tournament unceremoniously in a relatively tough but not unnavigable group. It started badly before the tournament was even started. Al Shamrani having an off the field spat with a fan who had the audacity to ask him for a photograph just before he took to the training pitch and it never improved much for the Saudis. A 4 goal demolition of North Korea after their opening match loss gave them a boost, but they fell without much of a fight to Uzbekistan in the final stage. Symptomatic of their indifferent form throughout the last few Asian Cup tournaments (2007 aside).
Their remarkable record of 6 finals in 8 tournaments before the start of the tournament now reads 6 finals in the last 9 tournaments. The other 3 were group exits, in 2004, 2011 & 2015. A worrying trend is developing for West Asia’s most decorated side of the last few decades. Where do they go from here? The World Cup in 2018 could well be too early for any real change to take place, but surely a more long term plan has to be put in place by the Saudi FA. They have a strong enough league to produce the players, they just need to integrate them into a successful unit on the National Team level. Easier said than done of course.
Two months after celebrating their Gulf Cup championship victory, Qatar have fallen from fancied outsiders to doomed 1st round exiters at the Asian Cup. In a group pitting them against two other potential tournament victors in Iran and UAE, it was always going to a tough ask to compete for a progression route to the quarters, and it eventually proved too high a mountain to climb. Two defeats against the so called “bigger boys” in the group was finally confounded with a third successive defeat against another one of their West Asian neighbours, this time Bahrain.
In none of the defeats did Qatar produce the same resilience that saw them fly through to the final back in November’s Gulf Cup, neither did they look like they had any ideas in the attacking third, something that was ultimately to blame for their early exit. Questions continue to rain in, as fans look to apportion blame; the form of goalkeeper Qasem Burhan was pretty awful, the talent of Boualem Khoukhi failed to live up to expectations, while the tactical and selection decisions from highly rated Djamal Belmadi have all had fingers pointed in their direction.
In truth, Qatar may have found their level. While their Under 23 side starred last January at the WAFF championship, in Saudi Arabia, Belmadi’s side could easily be labelled as lucky to make it all the way to the final, let alone win the whole Gulf Cup. For me, Belmadi’s talents are clearly up there, given his age and the individual quality of his available squad which should’ve had less expected of them going into Australia. As is the case however, once you perform to a certain level, you are always going to be compared to that fruitful period, something Belmadi will hope to quell on the run up to the World Cup qualifiers later in the year.
Moment of the tournament so far
Yaser Kasim’s goal against Jordan
Biased I may be, but it’s not many times in a tournament that you jump up and then keep jumping for minutes with a beaming smile on your face. Yaser Kasim is a player that has the ability to make you do that.
His run & goal against Jordan, seamlessly both powerful & controlled was a joy to behold. He drives into the box, feints past two players and strikes the ball which takes a lucky deflection, but they all count right?
The Swindon midfielder was a “one to watch” for many before the tournament began, but I can’t use that against his outstanding form in this tournament. Probably the first name on the team sheet for Iraq Coach Radhi Shneishel, the composed and gifted midfielder is a joy to watch.
With Nashat Akram & Qusay Muneer dominating the Iraqi midfield for the best part of a decade, it was an anxious time for Iraqi fans to see who would be the natural heir to the throne. But their wait was not a long one, and Yaser who dominated against China in his first 90 minutes for Iraq during the qualifiers has never looked like relinquishing his hold on the midfield and his starting spot with it.
Future Iraqi captain? Don’t bet against it.
Wang Dalei’s penalty save
This tournament has been fascinating throughout the whole group stage; from attention gripping tactical play through to the end to end encounters where teams endeavour to keep racking up the goal scoring. However, my favourite moment was early on when China opened against Saudi Arabia. Where a clear penalty was awarded for Saudi Arabia mid-way through the second period, leaving no one in any doubt that the Green Falcons would go on to win the match from their solid position. However, not only did the Chinese goalkeeper and Birthday boy Wang Dalei seek to save the penalty, but also the ball boy behind his net. It was set up brilliantly as one of those uplifting fairy-tale story lines, where a fan of the beautiful game went on to influence the tournament.
As soon as the penalty was awarded, I’m sure I wasn’t alone to be confused by the actions of Wang as he seemed to hold a light hearted discussion behind the goal with the nearest ball boy. To Wang’s and China’s benefit, the 12 year old ball boy, Aussie Stephen White was a young keeper himself and provided his adamant prediction where Hazazi, the Saudi striker readying himself for his run up, was going to place his penalty kick. Wang chose to go along with White’s thinking, guessing correctly and saving the day for the Chinese. Minutes later, the Chinese won against all the odds thanks to a deflected free kick from Yu Hai, further inspiring them to three successive victories and into a Quarter finals’ apperance.
For his inspirational performance Wang was awarded the Man of the Match accolade which he openly wished to share with his ball boy accomplice. What a remarkable story of how a 12 year old Australian can make his way into Chinese football folk law, I wonder which team the young Socceroo will choose to support when China face the Australians in the quarter finals.