Asian Cup 2015 SFGP Writers’ Verdicts

We have witnessed a remarkable Asian Cup tournament in Australia; possibly the best Asian Cup of all time according to some people. Our writer’s give their thoughts on the spectacle below:

Amro

What did you predict badly:

That Japan would win the tournament. They came up against a very good UAE side who did what they’ve been threatening to do for a while, and dispatched the defending champions!

What did you predict well:

That Australia would be there or there abouts as a host nation. They managed to win their first Asian Cup title on home soil, hopefully it can give football in the country another boost and raise the profile of the sport further.

Game of the tournament:

Iraq Vs Iran by far. Game of the tournament, and one of the best football matches in any Asian Cup. An instant classic that exploded into life in extra time. The raw emotion, coupled with the fact the game included a controversial decision from Ben Williams just adds to the inevitable legendary status the game will forever have.

Player of the tournament:

Dhurgham Ismail (Iraq)- Coming into the tournament the Iraqi player everyone wanted to know about was Ali Adnan. I tried to reason that he may not be guaranteed a starting spot. Dhurgham showed why that was the case in some style. After being ignored entirely by Hakim Shaker at the Gulf Cup, Radhi Shneishel gave the 20 year old his chance, and boy did he seize it. He went on to make the official Asian Cup XI and deservedly so. He has offers from clubs all across Asia, and if he makes the right move away from Al Shurta, he could have a stellar career ahead of him. Iraq are spoiled in the left back position for a generation too, with two wonderfully gifted players that will be competing against one another for a starting spot.

Player you discovered during the tournament:

Sardar Azmoun (Iran)- The 20 year old striker looked excellent in a pre tournament friendly for Iran’s friendly against Iraq and became a first team regular during the tournament. His tournament may have ended in heartbreak & tears, but the Rubin Kazan striker has many Asian Cups ahead of him to put things right.

Highlight:

Iraq’s incredible run to the semi finals. The team was written off at the quarter final stage by everyone including me, and they somehow made another semi final appearance at the tournament. For a team without a fully functional league, unable to play home games, and basic facilities, that is an incredible achievement. Now imagine if they had a stable nation with top class facilities? You get the picture.

Lowlight:

The lack of respect shown to the tournament by broadcasters in Europe. Eurosport were horrible in their “coverage”, which included a blackout from the last stage of the group phase all the way through to the Semi Finals, the first of which was shown 20 minutes into the first half because of the tennis. Appalling, and worse the AFC sold the rights to irresponsible buyers. It cannot be allowed to happen again if the tournament is to raise its profile globally.

Tom

What did you predict badly:

Qatar going far, obviously. In my latest tournament prediction, I had them down as semi-finalists; in my original one, I saw them going even further. Terrible me, I know.

In my defence, I still believe that if it wasn’t for those insensitive changes to tried and tested line-up (Muntari & Trésor in particular), Qatar would’ve performed much better. It seriously destroyed all the chemistry Belmadi’s side emanated at the 2014 Gulf Cup only a couple of months earlier.

What did you predict well:

Now I think about it… not much. I initially gave out a prognosis featuring South Korea as group winners and eventual finalists, which sounds about right (if you ignore that I expected them to go up against Japan, ahem).

Still, I was driven by my well known fondness of South Korea back then, rather than by “pragmatic thinking” , which would have seen me ending up awfully wrong. Once again.

Game of the tournament:

Can I say “the Iran-Iraq quarter-final past the 90 minute mark”? I don’t want to point at the game as a whole, since it was badly damaged by some dreadful refereeing, but the extra time was something else, all sorts of emotions caused just by numerous exciting and legitimate actions on the pitch.

Pouraliganji going from hero to zero (and back to half-hero as a successful penalty taker); Iraqi trademark set-piece defending; Jahanbakhsh and his heroic block in the dying minutes of the over time; Mahmoud’s panenka, of course. And that’s not even close to the whole list of exciting events following the 90 minute mark.

Player of the tournament:

Trent Sainsbury (Australia)- While I’m in peace with Massimo Luongo being named the official Most Valuable Player, my personal favourite has always been Trent Sainsbury, since the 22 year old centre back did virtually everything for Australia. He was instrumental in their build-up, as a constant aerial threat he bagged a winner in the semi final, and defensively, he was as big an upgrade to Wilkinson as he possibly could be. Mature decision making, smart positioning play, in other words, a complete package already.

Player you discovered during the tournament:

Sardor Rashidov (Uzbekistan)- There were plenty of new starring faces to me (Kim Jin-hyeon, Pouraliganji, Sun Ke, etc.), but I simply have to go with the 23 year old winger, as he’s a symbol of that little, yet significant “Uzbek youth revolution” occurring right in the middle of their Asian Cup campaign. Ultimately, Rashidov finished the tournament as the most dangerous Uzbek (by far) – getting two goals in that crucial game against Saudi Arabia, shooting purposefuly from distance and even making a serious impact as the main creative force in the quarter final versus South Korea.

Highlight:

The bronze medal match. I know it’s often pictured as a meaningless fixture, and therefore, it may not be the best advert for the whole tournament. But both Iraq & UAE approached the game seriously, and I as a neutral enjoyed it as much as anything else at the tournament.

After all, it was a free flowing, eventful affair. Two comebacks (one per side), one penalty, one red card, one more special performance from Omar Abdulrahman, and eventually even one more late contender for the Golden Boot award in Ahmed Khalil. Fun fun fun!

Lowlight:

Ben Williams. Overwhelmingly. And it’s not just about that well documented quarter final fiasco, the Australian referee was terrible in all three matches he was appointed to. He ruined two derbies and he did everything he could to prevent Uzbekistan from advancing to the knock out stages, too.

Martin

What did you predict badly:

On paper Group D looked the best route for an initial shock in the tournament. Fresh off the back of their AFC Challenge Cup victory, my tip that Palestine would nick second place in the group, in hindsight looks misguided.

Credit to Iraq, who I’d written off after their woeful Gulf Cup for finally living up to their talent and making it further than anyone expected, but I still have a notion of sadness when I think back to Palestine’s debut campaign.

What did you predict well:

While some predicted Qatar would go from strength to strength after a whirlwind 2014, I always thought a tough group including Iran and in particular UAE would cause them too much trouble. I finally predicted UAE would come third, and was pleasantly surprised as Omar Abdulrahman inspired the Emiratis to victory over my pre-tournament favourites Japan.

I also will try and claim some credit for predicting Australia’s victory in the Asian Cup, where in our World Cup review podcast I tipped them for glory. Weeks before the tournament, I reverted to Japan, but had always thought a mixture of home support and Ange’s developing plan would see them through to the final.

Game of the tournament:

The Iran-Iraq tie from the Quarter-finals was incredibly memorable on many levels. First it was one of the few shocks in the latter stages of the tournament, secondly the game itself was an end to end spectacular.

How a match that everyone assumed Iran would go on to win comfortably turned into a chaotic affair thanks to Pooladi’s debatable red card, no one really knows, but one thing’s for sure, the card added to a neutral’s enjoyment. All this was capped off with the derby day atmosphere that wasn’t ever replicated in Australia, and the genius that is Younus Mahmoud, with his well talked about “Panenka” penalty.

Player of the tournament:

After juggling with a few candidates, I have chosen the player who had the most impact on each one of the matches he took part in, that player being Ahmed Ali Mabkhout of the UAE. He had a pretty faultless tournament, scoring 5 goals across his 6 matches and even in those matches he couldn’t find the target, he was UAE’s most likely route to goal.

He continued to illustrate his flexibility in front of goal, proving he was capable of the predatory (his 1st against Qatar), the immediate (his record beating early effort v. Bahrain) and the spectacular (the opener against Japan), but also his flexibility in terms of positioning. Often shifted out to the right, and in the 3rd/4th playoff to the left, he offered plenty more than a usual out and out goal scorer.

Player you discovered during the tournament:

One of the things that most impressed me, was the new approach to the tournament taken by Korea Republic and their new coach Uli Stielike. Obviously their defensive record has been shored up somewhat, going all the way to the final without conceding, however it was further up the pitch where I saw another marked improvement.

Lee Jeong-Hyeop’s arrival as the Koreans typical number nine figure was a pleasant surprise, given their problems in that area in the lead up to the tournament. He offered Korea a quick get out ball from defence, but also showed his ingenuity in possession, two clever finishes plus a neat chest down in the semi final alerted me to his ability. I hope to see much more of him in the K-league in the new campaign.

Highlight:

It was an early memory, but on Day 2 of the tournament; China’s recovery over Saudi Arabia was one of my favourite points of the tournament. It wasn’t the most spectacular of results but their 1-0 win went further than the mere score line. The whole fairy tale story regarding Wang Dalei and that saved penalty spurred on by the ball boy behind the Chinese net, kicked off a resurgence in China which lasted the whole group stage.

Yu Hai’s deflected effort was criticised in some quarters of being undeserved, but Alain Perrin deserves credit for setting his side up in the perfect way, soaking up Saudi pressure before picking their time to strike. A brace of victories in the Group Stage that followed led to an unarguably deserved Quarter-Final run which will spur China on to greater things as 2015 gets going.

Lowlight:

With so much pre tournament hype heaped upon them, Japan’s miserable exit in the quarters was a pretty deflating moment for all those who tipped them for great things. Their group was the easiest on paper, and they duly dispatched Palestine, Iraq and Jordan on the way through to the knockout stages.

However, in the quarter final against UAE they looked out of ideas and drive as they looked for a winner. Thankfully Javier Aguirre’s short reign has been terminated, his time was rocky without any real success on the pitch. I’m praying to see a more youthful dynamic approach from the next coach, after Aguirre all but disregarded talents such as Shibasaki and Kiyotake for the majority of the tournament.

Sina

What did you predict badly:

Having focused mainly on group C, I initially predicted Iran and Qatar to proceed into the next stage. Qatar having won the Gulf Cup a month prior to the Asian Cup, were one of the on form teams coming into the tournament. With players such as Khalfan Ibrahim and Boualem Khouki, I expected them to edge UAE in their first game. But they failed miserably and lost the game 4-1 in after having led 1-0. Losing their captain and influential Centre Back Bilal Mohammed on the eve of the tournament was a huge blow and Qasem Burhan having a disaster of a campaign in goal also contributed to a below par tournament for the Qataris. They were knocked out with no points and Algerian manager Djamel Belmadi will have many questions to answer.
What did you predict well:

Having followed the Iranian national team very closely prior to the tournament, I was not as surprised by the inclusion of young Defensive Midfielder turned Centre Back, Morteza Pouraliganji, in the starting XI. I had previously spoken of the possibility of seeing him feature at the tournament in defence due to the injury of Pejman Montazeri and the inconsistent performances from Amir Hossein Sadeghi after the World Cup. Pouraliganji, only 22, plays his football for Iranian club Naft Tehran, performed well above expectations and proved to be one of the best young players in the entire tournament and I’m sure we will see more of him in the future.
Game of the tournament:

With no bias being involved in this, the clash of Iran and Iraq was always going to be a promising game but it turned out to be one of the best games in the history of the tournament. Of course a certain Ben Williams, contributed to the drama by wrongly sending off Iranian left back Mehrdad Pouladi. Iran were leading 1-0 thanks to a great goal by their talented young striker, Sardar Azmoun, but the sending off made the game more open and we saw many more goals. The Iranians had to come back from a goal down twice with 10 men after Iraq had taken the lead 2-1 in extra time with the final score being 3-3. The game was decided with an exciting penalty shootout which was won by the Iraqis after Ehsan Hajsafi and Vahid Amiri missed their kicks for Iran. The game had everything, goals from youngsters such as Pouraliganji and Dhurgham Ismael, to veteran Younus Mahmoud getting on the scoresheet and recording an unlikely yet historic win for the Iraqis.

Player of the tournament:

In this tournament we saw many young players making a name for themselves with some surprise packages. With Western Sidney Wanderers winning the 2014 AFC Champions league in December and then the hosts Australia winning this tournament, I think it’s only fair to carry the Australian theme and choose a player from the newly crowned champions of Asia. Massimo Luongo was a player who many people did not expect to be a key player for the Aussies, but as we saw, the midfielder produced some fantastic performances to help his country win their first ever Asian Cup. Luongo who plays his football in the third tier of English football with Swindon Town, was instrumental for Australia from the very first game to the final, and he was rightly given the Most Valuable Player award.

Player you discovered during the tournament:

After Iraq’s impressive and unexpected achievements in the tournament and their ability to get in the last four, there was a few standout performers. A lot of pundits and fans pointed out Yaser Kasim as Iraq’s best player but I’m going to go with a 20 year old left back named Dhurgham Ismael. Dhurgham wasn’t one of Iraq’s better known players before the tournament but he certainly made a name for himself with some great performances. An attacking full back, he provided pace and a lot of attacking threat for his team on the left side but his defensive weaknesses were exposed on a few occasions. He has many years ahead of him to develop his skills and physically improve. He plays his football in Iraq for Al Shurta but after his showings in the Asian Cup, a move to a better Asian club or even a European club beckons.

Highlight:

Australia did a great job in hosting one of the most exciting Asian Cups that’s ever been held but this tournament wouldn’t have been the same without the great turn outs from the fans. As an Iranian I’ve witnessed the support for Team Melli for many years and I have seen some great support for Iran in stadiums all over the world, but I was pleasantly surprised to see our massive fan base in Australia. Although we only (disappointingly) made it to the quarter finals, but the fans turned out in their tens of thousands to support their country and it was fantastic to see.

Lowlight:

Ben Williams. His name is self-explanatory. From a neutral point of view, he probably made the Iraq-Iran game a lot more exciting by sending off Mehrdad Pouladi. But he turned the game on its head with a decision which has no justification. Iran was considered as one of the favourites of the tournament, especially after a strong showing in the group stages and felt undone by a poor refereeing decision.

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