World Cup 2018 – Round 3 Review (Asia)

At this stage four years ago we waved farewell to Asia in the knockouts of the World Cup, so we should be thankful that we have at least one representative in the Round of 16 in Akira Nishino’s Japan. That being said after a historically triumphant group stage which amassed 15 points in total (one more than in 2002 & 2010), we feel robbed of another one or two making it past the round robin preliminaries.

The final round of fixtures didn’t disappoint however, join Tom Danicek, Martin Lowe and Sina Saemian as we round up the key talking points from the last week of action.

Saudi Arabia – Egypt 2:1 (mark 7/10)

Saudis continue their low-profile ascent through a win and dominant 2nd half, with Al Hilal players on target once again

Here’s a thought no one, yours truly included, would support post-opening game: it is a very good thing Juan Antonio Pizzi is staying on till 2019 Asian Cup. While the team is still not quite up to speed to what Pizzi wants from it, and still doesn’t click in multiple areas (especially some basic communication across the backline seemed to be sorely missing at times), Saudis have gradually grown into the tournament and much deserved their first WC win since 1994.

There are a few good signs that make me thing Saudi Arabia could, if blessed by in-form players (as opposed to exact opposites from Russia, like Al Sahlawi), easily dominate the continental championship. First, it’s the chemistry down the left-hand side which saw Salman Al Faraj and Yasser Al Shahrani combining and switching positions very seemlessly at times. Second, it’s the emergence of Abdullah Otayf, whose graceful presence at the base will serve great purpose when breaking down stubborn opponents at the expanded Asian Cup. Third, it’s the coach himself, who seems fairly flexible and even prepared to abandon his own cherished principles like active pressing, which – Pizzi figured out here early-ish, yet still little too late – really isn’t the way forward for Saudis, hence at least allowing for a respectable loss v Uruguay.

Pizzi made good moves in Russia and adjusted almost as much as circumstances allowed him to, which is an observation that itself comes a long way from an ill-advised game plan for Russia. Inserting Motaz Hawsawi and finally injecting some intelligent movement and pace into the defensive line was a smart, if not key difference-making call for the rest of the WC, as was starting Fahad Al Muwallad up front as a false no. 9 against the immobile Egyptian defence (despite Al Muwallad himself not contributing too much) and targeting fullbacks with Al Faraj and Al Moqahwi cleverly overloading wide areas from their initial central positions.

Therefore, and also for a bold move of introducing salary cap in the domestic league, I suddenly hold a fair amount of hope for Saudis who seemingly stopped shooting themselves in the foot just as suddenly as they started with the enforced departure of Bert van Marwijk. TD

Iran – Portugal 1:1 (mark 8/10)

Iran come a whisker away from sneaking into a sensational Round 16

So close yet so far. That was the summary of Iran’s final group stages’ game against the European champions. Mehdi Taremi was only a few inches away to making history and Iran qualifying for the 2nd round of the world cup for the first time in their history.

Iran came into the game needing a win, or drawing and Morocco beating Spain by a 2-goal deficit. It was going to be a historical game either way for the Iranians, and judging from the first two games, we weren’t going down without a fight.

The first thing you would notice watching the game, is the incredible Iranian support in the Mordovia Stadium in Saransk. The sheer noise coming out of that stadium, you could notice a real sense of belief that this is not an impossible mission for Carlos Queiroz’s men. But when you face one of, if not the best, player in the world, who also has scored 4 goals already in the competition, you have to remain realistic. Queiroz’s plan worked to perfection, Ronaldo was kept quiet for majority of the first half and Iran worked the ball into some good positions with the final pass missing. We did see Beiranvand providing some familiar moments (to what we witnessed in qualifications) when he flapped a couple of the crosses, leaving the defenders to clean up the mess. My personal favourite part of Iran’s world cup campaign was probably watching Azmoun man mark William Carvalho in the centre of the pitch. He literally followed the defensive midfielder inch by inch all over the pitch, which was very effective as it made it difficult for Portugal to retain possession with their reference point being marked out of the game.

Second half Iran started very slow, and Quaresma scored a trademark outside of the boot long range goal which I don’t really want to recall too much. Then came a controversial incident, Ezatollahi’s clumsy challenge on Ronaldo just inside the box which, with the help of VAR, was given a penalty. I still can’t believe it but Beiranvand actually saved the penalty. The man who came under so much criticism before the tournament, the man who wandered the streets of Tehran working for restaurants and cafes, saved Cristiano Ronaldo’s penalty. That gave the team a huge lift. Five minutes into added time, another controversial VAR moment was provided after Azmoun’s downwards header hit the defender’s arm and the Paraguayan referee gave a penalty, step forward Karim Ansarifard, the man wearing the armband. I think Karim must have been the calmest one out of all of us watching, because the way he scored that penalty, cool and accurate shot into the top right corner, Ronaldo wished he took the penalty like that. Final moments of the game, score at 1-1, a deflected shot from outside the box falls to Mehdi Taremi on the edge of the 6-yard box, we all sat up ready to scream and celebrate but his effort hit the side netting. Just a few inches, that’s how close we were. History was so close.

We collected four points from the European champions, one of the tournament’s favourites and the best African team coming into the tournament. The nation couldn’t be prouder, if the Spain v Portugal game had a winner, who knew what would’ve happened, maybe we would’ve been playing Russia or Uruguay right now. But with those performances, those players received a hero’s welcome upon their arrival back in Tehran, and rightly so.

The Asian cup is only 6 months away, and it is the first time we go into a tournament where I genuinely believe we are the favourites for the competition. With the introduction of players like Majid Hosseini, and other young players such as Omid Noorafkan, then Iran will definitely look to end the 42 year drought and become Asian champions. Of course the key is to keep hold of Carlos Queiroz and his staff, but who knows what will happen over the coming months. SS

Australia – Peru 0:2 (mark 4/10)

Tim Cahill finally comes on, only to see his shot blocked and Australia fall short vs Peru

Sokkah community has a problem; it loves camps and passionately standing for one. Initially, it was the Ange Postecoglou defenders versus anti-Ange brigade, which in turn, after his sudden departure, quickly morphed into the divide between those who wanted a foreigner or an Australian successor. Then, during the World Cup itself, there was the campaign for Tim Cahill with quite a few people who opposed it and/or considered it a bit silly.

Now it seems like the domestic coach and the Cahill camps are clearly winning – Socceroos went for a foreign gun for hire, a quick fix, which didn’t bring the nation more than a solitary point and, above all, any pleasure from an open World Cup goal while simultaneously failing to bring on Timmy earlier than for the second half of the third game. But are they winning, are they really?

The Tim Cahill brigade in particular is missing a point, as I see it. First, Australia had a useful starting striker in Andrew Nabbout, whose running stretched defences and his muscles held on even in the toughest of battles, waiting for support. Second, once Nabbout got injured, Cahill should’ve been brought on instantly – it was Denmark that suited his strengths most. Mat Leckie alone, after all, ended up rising and heading goalwards three crosses, which really is a lot. The Danes were hardly dominant in the air and Australia needed a stronger striker presence in the penalty area very much across the whole game. Third, Cahill should not have been brought at all cost for the third game, which could’ve rather used a Jamie Maclaren than him. And finally, the “we need a finisher” line isn’t really representative of the single one issue that’s bothering Australia and that cost them progression here in Russia. While you do need to finish things off, you don’t necessarily need a striker to do that for you.

That’s why it’s, above all, so baffling Bert van Marwijk only gave a combined 28 minutes, split between two games equally, together on the pitch to the whole trio of Arzani, Rogić and Leckie – three most dangerous Australian players who could complement each other nicely – while at the same time stucking with Robbie Kruse, man very much infamous for his inability to finish things off, as a starter for the whole tournament. Also, refer rather to Van Marwijk’s refusal to field Massimo Luongo altogether, the man who scored the go-ahead goal in the Asian Cup final, proving he can provide some secondary scoring, and besides brings some unrivalled, versatile skillset to the table; something that definitely could’ve been used in place of the Mascherano of this side, Mile Jedinak, when chasing three points.

What all the “we need a finisher” is ultimately suggesting, is that Australia just didn’t have resources to progress from this group, and if so, then they were 38 years old. That, however, I do not find accurate at all.

This group was navigable, first and foremost; it just required a bit of guts to go for the win versus Denmark, on the day fiercely committed to being unimpressive and thoroughly beatable. Second of all, Milligan moving into the backline and serving as the more aggressive of centre backs proved that even by slight improvising you can compensate for shortcomings in one area; improvisation being, at the same time, very distant to Van Marwijk when it came to in-game management, as he would just withdraw Rogić for Irvine every time, even when the man finally inspired vs Peru.

This is, therefore, a story of poorly managed resources that were nothing special but still adequate. Not a story of a fatal lack of resources where not much else could’ve been done to take Australia through. That, for me, is rather lazy, defeatist. TD

South Korea – Germany 2:0 (mark 8/10)

Korea knock out World champions, ending their miserable campaign in style

If there was a response required to their damaging first two encounters in Russia, Korea’s triumph over outgoing World Cup champions Germany lived up to just that. While the result wasn’t enough to take them through to an unlikely knockout stage appearance, Korea head home with a crumb of pride to hold onto. For a tournament that in its entirety will be considered a failure, for now we can take comfort that they made the news for good not bad on their final day.

We’ve criticised Shin Tae-Yong plenty in this tournament, so credit where credit is due, the selections he made on the whole worked (at least from a defensive standpoint). The central defensive duo of Kim Young-Gwon and Jung Seung-Hyun were incredible. Kim capped off a committed yet composed display with the goal that turned the game, while Jung, only in his third cap for the national team, looked every inch the leader Korea have been missing this tournament. He of course replaced Jang Hyun-Soo after his demorilising performance against Mexico, yet the FC Tokyo man made amends somewhat, at least out of possession in an unusually effective defensive midfield role.

Let’s also not forget that Shin plumped for Cho Hyeon-Woo, arguably the most surprising find of the tournament across all 32 teams, already being imortalised by rival Mexico fans for some of his heroic efforts in net to keep Germany from dumping out the Central Americans.

From a solid base, Korea for much of the time looked the more dangerous side, albeit sporadically on the break. Son Heung-Min remains this team’s talisman, but rather than hiding from the pressure, he stood up and lead the line well, noticeably setting the German defence back upon receiving possession and of course scoring the memorable second goal. Germany were limited, noticeable fractured and towards the end dead on their feet, but Korea can attest to inflicting some of that themselves as the match wore on.

For a widely advertised attacking manager, possibly as a direct contrast to his pragmatic predecessor Uli Stielike, Shin Tae-Yong has proved to be a predominantly defence first coach at the very highest level. He’d already conceded to have set up his side in that regard against Sweden in the opening encounter, so why expect any different against Germany, the critical point this time is that is was a timely considered approach (and of course Kim Shin-Wook was thankfully absent from the start).

While Korea arrived home this morning, to a non-dissimilar reception of flying food objects (eggs over sweets this year), the honeymoon period of such a historic victory will quickly evaporate from their minds. Man-for-man, the squad haven’t been too bad, blame can’t be put at the door of Son Heung-Min for example, like many predicted, and but for the odd personal mistake, in general Korea defended well, instead tactically they were regularly well off the pace. Shin will be expecting the sack soon, even with only six months to go until the Asian Cup. The players showed their capabilities on Wednesday, they just need a coach to enhance them.

Japan – Poland 0:1 (mark 5/10)

Nishino gets away with it, as Japan progress to the knockouts through the Fair Play tiebreaker

If you wanted a big finish to the group stage, the nerve shredding 10 minutes to end Japan’s defeat to Poland capped off a historic few weeks for Asian football perfectly. Japan failed to finish off an unbeaten group stage, potentially their first since 2002, yet are through to the Round of 16, albeit in fortunate circumstances, progressing on fair play standings over Senegal. While questions are hurriedly being pointed at Akira Nishino after a raft of starting XI changes, it can’t be argued that fortune doesn’t favour the Samurai Blue coach.

Upon the lineups being revealed an hour before the match, many jaws will have hit the floor at the bold statement Nishino was trying to make. When ensured of progression (akin to England & Belgium later in the day), rotating the starting lineup is expected, but few would’ve thought Japan were so brazen to take things for granted, still requiring a point to make it over the line to the knockouts.

The six personnel changes aside, Nishino also tinkered up the system (switching to a 442) and perplexedly kept net with Eiji Kawashima, the one change Japan fans hoped for. On one hand, freshness in the knockout stages is a sought after commodity, which is something Japan will go into Monday’s match with Belgium on level terms with and with the excessive heat and humidity subjected in Volgograd, it looks a wise move in hindsight. The key however, is that Japan barely came through with the goods, in fact they relied on the result in the other match, something conceded by Nishino after the match.

The match itself was there to win. Poland were a shell of the seeded side of the group everyone expected to turn up in Russia. That being said, with a number of personnel switches and an uncomfortable bedding in period for the side in an unfamiliar formation, Japan were rightly second best, as Poland grew in confidence going into the second half. The choice of Gotoku Sakai at right midfield was strange, given his tendency to come in side, and that his namesake Hiroki may have proved a better outlet, if he wasn’t stationed behind him.

In attack, Yoshinori Muto and Shinji Okazaki were afforded births up front. Muto looked mobile enough without any real joy, while Okazaki plainly struggled for sharpness and eventually succumbed to injury after the break. Going into the Poland match, Okazaki was the one member of the squad with a real injury concern to his name; in a match where you’re attempting to preserve bodies, blooding a player who is fighting fitness seems incompatible.

This led onto further contradictions in Nishino’s plans, namely his substitutions. After proudly standing behind his decision, he retreated early bringing on assumed starters for the Round of 16, Yuya Osako and Takashi Inui in search of an equaliser, before retreating once more bringing on Makoto Hasebe to shut up shop late on. For a man, so brave to set out the scale of changes he did so at the start of play, to flap around so noticeably in the second period is slightly disconcerting.

His decisions in the main this tournament have been proven successful; the decision to start Gaku Shibasaki ahead of Hotaru Yamaguchi has set out the stall for Japan’s World Cup campaign to date, his half time messages against Colombia breathed life into the side going into the second period, and as much as it was a foolhardy risk to start, the end result on Thursday saw Japan achieve their pre-tournament ambitions of making it out of the group.

The scenes as the minutes ticked away yesterday weren’t a pleasurable watch, but for that I can’t put fault with Japan or Nishino, as the same would’ve occurred over a more agreeable tiebreaker like goal difference. The feeling behind it however was undoubtedly avoidable, after going through two matches unbeaten against their strongest opponents for qualification, Japan were a confident proactive side with their destiny in their own hands. In the final few moments, as they passed it around the back four, hoping not to concede, hoping not to collect any further yellow cards and hoping Colombia could stand firm, that destiny well and truly was thrown out of their hands.

Group Stage – Power Rankings

  1. Iran (7/10 v Morocco, 8/10 v Spain, 8/10 v Portugal) – 7.6/10
  2. Japan (7/10 v Colombia, 7/10 v Senegal, 5/10 v Poland) – 6.3/10
  3. South Korea (3/10 v Sweden, 6/10 v Mexico, 8/10 v Germany) – 5.6/10
  4. Australia (6/10 v France, 6/10 v Denmark, 4/10 v Peru) – 5.3/10
  5. Saudi Arabia (2/10 v Russia, 5/10 v Uruguay, 7/10 Egypt) – 4.6/10
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