The 2019 Asian Cup so far
Asian Cup 2019 – the ghastly group stage is done, now for some elimination excitement21 January 2019 | Stuart Thomas
When Asian Cup play began on the 6 January and the hosts took on Bahrain, the most important number for many teams was three.
Sure, 24 teams, 6 groups and 0 VAR influence on the early stages were all vital numbers. Yet for some, the number three would be the key.
With assumptions made around South Korea, Japan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, China, Uzbekistan, Australia, Iran and the host nation’s seemingly logical progression to the knockout phase, it left something of a mad scrap for others to book their place.
Groups A, B and D were of most interest with the second qualifying position looking far from assured. Jordan, Thailand and Iraq nabbed those spots and joined the UAE, Australia and Iran in the final 16. The Jordanians were in fact good enough to top Group B, after a tournament opening victory against reigning champions Australia.
That meant four teams would sneak through with the most impressive third place performances. India threw their hat into the ring with a 4-1 opening win against Thailand and Syria and Palestine played out a scoreless stalemate, both hoping the point would be of value. In the end, three points were needed and both have now headed home.
Lebanon and the Philippines were other examples of hopeful qualifiers, yet it was to be Kyrgyzstan, Vietnam, Oman and Bahrain for whom the number three would come up trumps, after they all found a win in the group stage.
The bracketing for the Round of 16 now sees the Australians, South Koreans, Qatar and the UAE in the bottom half. All four could progress yet the top half of the draw has some real winners and at least one shock loser.
Japan and Saudi Arabia meet at the Sharjah Stadium on Monday, with one nation destined for an early flight home. Neither country attends an Asian Cup without hopes of victory and one will achieve very little after such an early exit.
The real winners in the top half are Vietnam, with a top eight spot secured for the victor, who defeated Jordan 2-4 in a penalty shooout on Sunday after 1-1 at full time. Making it to the quarter-finals would have been an achievement for whichever nation had gone through. Well done to Vietnam.
(In the two other games played on Sunday, Iran defeated Oman 2-0, while China elimiated Thailand, 2-1).
What follows the Round of 16 is guesswork. Australia faces an Uzbekistan, UAE, South Korea trail, if they are to advance to the final; with a chance at achieve back-to-back Asian Cup titles.
Qatar’s Almoez Ali (pictured) has been the undoubted goal scoring star of the tournament thus far. He has scored in every game, including four against North Korea. His performances have brought plaudits from none other than Jose Mourinho, who cited the need for the Qatari to go abroad in order to develop further.
Eldor Shomurodov from Uzbekistan has also found the net in each of the group games. The 23 year-old who plays up front for FC Rostov in the Russian League, is poised to provide headaches for a leaky Socceroo defence that is yet to impose itself on the tournament.
Awer Mabil has been the unquestionable highlight for the Socceroos. His stunning strike against Syria further confirmed the widely held belief that he will play a vital role for the Socceroos for some time to come.
The broadcast emanating from the UAE has been top quality for those Australians sitting up well into the wee hours of the morning. The added bonus of hearing international commentators, those outside our own A-League bubble, has been a pleasant experience.
The concerns around local attendance at the tournament have been proven valid. Whilst the home side averaged 31,631 fans across their three group matches, elsewhere, things have looked a little grim; certainly in comparison to the amazing numbers achieved in Australia four years ago.
There have been very few attendance figures over the 10,000 mark thus far, with Palestine proving the emotional favourites from the neutral observer’s point of view. 20,843 flocked to the Mohammed bin Zayed Stadiumfor their clash with Jordan and the two draws the Lions of Canaan achieved in the group stage were a credit to their courage and effort.
On the flip side, an almost comical 452 people attended the North Korea v Qatar match. A sad number considering the four goal masterclass that Ali had in store.
Those A-League fans lamenting the lack of VAR intervention in the Western Sydney Wanderers v Adelaide United clash on Friday night might do well to reflect on some of the disgraceful guesswork we have seen by officials at the Asian Cup thus far.
The VAR kicks in at the quarter-final stage in the UAE; but will it be too late and after a contender is bundled out by a contentious penalty in the Round of 16?
As a footballing world, we are still to get our heads collectively around this rather cumbersome technology. The tournament has raised one fundamental question. As much as many despise its use, does the Asian Cup remind us of the reasons the VAR was built and implemented in the first place?
The late penalty awarded to Syria against the Socceroos was a prime example of the guesswork being applied to key moments, rather than astute decision making based on the evidence at hand. Throw in the good fortune that Mark Milligan experienced when he evaded punishment for his own infringement earlier in the match and it is no wonder the validity of football results often come into question.
Now we enter the knockout phase. The wounded Aussies are in with a sneaky chance. South Korea, Qatar and Japan, look confident and aggressive and the home side, UAE, will be hoping to ride the wave of local support for four more matches on their way to an historic victory that would be very similar to Australia’s four years ago.
It will be fun to watch, especially when the VAR enters the fray at the quarter-final stage.
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