Friday, 1 February 2019

Asian Cup Matchday Review (Final)

Qatar clinch their first ever Asian Cup in some style, cruising to a 3-1 victory over heavyweights Japan in what was a final that didn’t falter under heavy expectation. The names Almoez Ali, Akram Afif, Bassam Al-Rewi and Felix Sanchez are now written into Asian football folklore, but what about the rest of the world with this summer’s Copa America and the World Cup in 2022 still to come? For now, a quick look back on a terrific game for the neutrals, and the key talking points to take from it.

The Player

Given the realistic ambitions of Qatar heading into the tournament, one man had a greater amount of pressure on his shoulders than most to fire his side’s cause. Upon this, the nation’s first continental senior prize, Akram Afif can sit back and can comfortably believe that he exceeded his personal goals. No fewer than 10 assists (unofficially 11, but we’ll let the AFC off), with two coming in the final, Afif has been the chief creator behind a side that has blown away the rest of Asia over the last month. His match sealing penalty was the cherry on his cake, a campaign to be savoured.

This match in particular saw Afif’s all round game come to fore, past the mere (sic) statistics of scoring once and providing another two. His pace was continually a threat on the break, stretching the usually mobile Maya Yoshida and Takehiro Tomiyasu this way and that, as Qatar continually threatened the Japanese backline. For better finishing he could’ve even finished with greater assist figures, Abdulaziz Hatem’s scooped effort after a great run and find from Afif in the second period would’ve capped off a worthy hat-trick of assists.

The eternal question will be what next for Qatar’s golden boy? He of course has dipped his toe in European football before and been found wanting. After a positive start with Eupen in Belgium, a move too early to Villarreal really stunted progress. For Afif, alongside the likes of golden boot winner Almoez Ali, centre midfield dynamo Assim Madibo and others, the approach of blindly funnelling them through the Eupen based Aspire outpost seems to have hit a dead end. Given the magnitude of these performances however, could we be about to see some moves of greater significance come the summer?

The Team

There will be few arguments around, that the best team didn’t win the Asian Cup trophy. 19 goals scored by seven different scorers, only to concede once (in the final) along the way, Qatar were exceptional from start to finish. The initial praise needs to go to the coaching staff, and the patience of the federation’s hierarchy. This has been a project 10 years in the making, and with grander sights being set on the World Cup in 4 years’ time, this promises to only be the beginning. The framework was sound, but the players have developed through it at a rate of knots. To a man this Qatar side were at the top of their game.

For the final, I’d initially predicted that Qatar would set up in a similar manner to the way they did against Korea. Deep, cautious and brave, only to hit on the counter come the second period. Well, to a degree I was right, but that defensive start only lasted a few minutes. As soon as the likes of Assim Madibo and Boualem Khoukhi got a foot hold in the midfield, Qatar ramped up the gears and left Japan flatfooted. An exceptional bicycle kick from Almoez Ali, followed by a sublime curling effort from Abdulaziz Hatem steered them away from the Japanese charge.

When summing up Qatar’s success, I quickly gravitate to the view that they see themselves as a team against the world. That world of course, being the political tensions that surround the region to date. Some may have worried for their inexperience given the magnitude of their matches against Saudi Arabia and UAE, but the young men came through fighting. The eligibility concerns that swirled upon the final failed similarly to de-balance a focussed group that are out to prove their doubters wrong. A worthy performance, that deserves the highest of praise.

The Talking Point

For all the positives that can be taken out of today’s final, the last few days have been tiresome, something neither helped by the governing body or the individual federations involved. If only football was the talking point after such a varied and substantive month-long competition, but instead we’re questioning ill-advised referee appointments, TV rights debacles and questions over player eligibility. The AFC have a much tougher job than most, given the intense political arena that is Asia, but continually they lack initiative, forethought and clarity, leaving us more and more in the dark, time and time again.

Maya Yoshida, a man who has stepped up to the plate in his new responsibility as Japan captain on and off the field pointed to this very fact on the run up to the final. Few want to imagine football as a consumer object, but the fact is the Asian Cup is a weak product, something the governing body has done little to resolve. This week’s inaction to crowd disturbances in the semi-final between UAE and Qatar and the accusations of falsified eligibility documents has done far more to fan the flames of a perceived corrupt footballing landscape than it does to alleviate tensions.

I speak as an outsider looking in. There has been little media scrutiny out in the Western world on anything to do with the Asian Cup, it’s not been on TV for a start, whilst any mention of players playing in the tournament is often derided as a “mickey mouse tournament.” The two key “trending” moments of the tournament have been when Son Heung-min was “released” of his duty upon South Korea’s defeat to Qatar and the right royal mess surrounding the Qatari national team’s eligibility, which is still perceived as a side that has bought its way to the title. While the AFC will notably shrug and suggest they have little impact on this, it has a duty of care to protect its prize product. Lessons need to be learned if Asian football is set to improve in the coming four years.

Wednesday, 30 January 2019

Asian Cup Matchday Review (Semi-Finals)

We’re now left with our final two, as Japan and Qatar overcame favourites Iran and hosts UAE in Monday & Tuesday’s semi-finals. While we’ve had hiccups along the way, it can’t be argued that we haven’t been granted the best two tactical teams on current form ahead of Friday’s final. Moriyasu’s Japan have grown into this tournament and demonstrated the best half of football we’ve seen in Asia for years, while Sanchez’s Qatar brushed aside the hosts as an afterthought, after a heated “blockade derby” ended with one clear winner. Looking back on the round, here’s my take on the key talking points.

The Player

“Flat track bully turned big match hero.” Depending on your point of view I may have undersold Almoez Ali’s impact to date there. The languid frame of Qatar’s leading man often flatters to deceive, but on this tournament’s reading, the Sudanese born striker has proved you shouldn’t underestimate his proficiency in front of goal. As Qatar emphatically overcame UAE in Tuesday’s semi-final, Ali clinched a little bit of history of his own, scoring his 8th in 6 matches, matching that of Asian great Ali Daei, in become the joint highest goal scorer in a single Asian Cup campaign.

In previous matches, Ali has come alive in the most inopportune moments, in jumping on lapses in defending, off a brilliant assist or dropped ball to capitalise in devastating fashion. His strike to double Qatar’s lead over the hosts was noticeable in its variance from the usual trend; picking up the ball 30 yards out, he engineered a small amount of space, to curl past the outstretched Khalid Eisa and send the capacity crowd into rapturous boos and sandal throwing petulance. The way he used the defender to create the angle was ingenious, the finish was right up there with the best at this tournament.

Ali’s career has blossomed of late, not in terms of proficiency, as he’s always been known for a high strike rate from early youth, but in his technical development. Having been moved out wide domestically for Al-Duhail, his movement and link up play have come along in spades, and that has transitioned into the national team. His passion for the cause also has been noticeable, for an often-quiet looking man, he’s been the most emotional of performers in the key politically charged moments against Saudi Arabia and UAE. Ahead of the final, Ali will be out to make history on a personal as well as national platform.

The Team

In the biggest match of the tournament so far, the best side in Asia over the last four years collapsed to their first continental competitive defeat over that time in dramatic style. While much of the discussion after the match surrounded Iran (I will get onto that), and where they go to now, Japan deserve the lion share of the limelight after what was another well thought out game plan. After a wobbly group stage, which required a comeback against Turkmenistan and a ground out result against Oman, the evolution of this Samurai Blue side has been a credit to their coach Hajime Moriyasu. After coming into the Asian Cup in muted form, Japan stand with one hand on the trophy ahead of Friday’s final with Qatar.

The Turkmenistan opener that welcomed this new Japanese side into competitive football, minus the likes of Keisuke Honda, Shinji Kagawa and Shinji Okazaki to name a few for the first time, was a tad disappointing to say the least. Defensively they were caught off guard too easily on the transition, whilst in possession they lacked ideas. From there forward, Japan improved immensely, firstly in a defensive capacity; their narrow victory over Saudi Arabia in the knockouts was a prime example of how to restrict attacking output to a possession hungry opposition, but they also improved their own forward thrust, demonstrated fully on Iran.

It’s arguably been slow in the uptake, but off the back of an improved performance by Ritsu Doan against Vietnam, the first-choice front four were back clicking. The return from injury of Yuya Osako spearheaded this, combining beautifully with Minamino (who looks much more comfortable in a support role opposed to burdening the goal scoring responsibilities) for both his opener, and the resulting penalty. Genki Haraguchi, one of the few who to survive the transition from direct countering deployed under the previous Halilhodzic regime, has changed up his game and capped off his performance with the late third.

For all the youthful inventiveness that has come to the fore, it was in experienced deeper areas where Japan starred most against Iran however. Maya Yoshida has grown in his responsibility, given the likes of Makoto Hasebe and Keisuke Honda have left. He looked a taller man, leading from the back alongside his fledgling defensive partner in Tomiyasu, his regal status is beginning to blossom. Another muted but effective performance from Gaku Shibasaki again ticked the team along. When few were keeping their heads in the Iranian line-up, Shibasaki ran the show coolly.

This new breed of Japan under Moriyasu has taken time to get used to, but with Iran joining the likes of Saudi Arabia, South Korea and Australia on the plane home after underwhelming campaigns (most of whom remain in transition), Japan’s success to date is ever more considerable. A Friday final appearance awaits them, as Japan continue to flex their undoubted muscle on the continental stage.

The Talking Point

Monday’s exit for Iran from the Asian Cup, which many had them destined to win, left many with a mixture of feelings. For neutrals, for an overwhelming favourite to be contested in that way is uplifting, however given the manner of the capitulation and resulting fallout, the last four years of dominance has a feeling of anti-climax for most of us. In the direct wake, legendary head coach Carlos Queiroz leaves Iran, having overseen arguably the greatest national side in the country’s history, but he still leaves plenty of what ifs.

As suggested in my tournament preview, Iran’s Achilles heel was that of mentality, something Queiroz had developed over his tenure. At the World Cup last summer, Iran revelled in being the underdog, contesting with the likes of Portugal and Spain on a technical level was a tough ask, but on an emotion level they had it won hands down. When it comes to continental football however, Iran were rarely going to be afforded such little expectation. The second half in particular against Japan finally ebbed away from them, fuelled by a sense of injustice where emotion and spirit overcame them, to be clinically took apart by a ruthlessly put together Japan side.

It's difficult to separate Queiroz’s managerial style and Iran’s philosophy, as both seem to fuel each other. Where to next for both parties will be very interesting indeed, and whether either will differ intact. While Queiroz is rumoured to be heading to South America, with Colombia being the most interested of parties, Iran start afresh in their pursuit of replacing a living legend. An emotional resilient approach has worked wonders the last four years, but given the improvements made in Iranian football from a talent perspective, is a technical, forward thinking coach the way to go? With Juan Antonio Pizzi already being muted as a potential successor, Iranian fans could be set to replace chalk with cheese on the most extreme proportions.

Friday, 25 January 2019

Asian Cup Matchday Review (Quarter-Finals)

We’re through to the finer end of things as we set up for the Asian Cup semi-finals that will take place on Monday and Tuesday. While Iran shone with a stunning attacking performance over China, the round was defined by some solid and tactically aware defensive performances from Japan and tournament dark horses Qatar. With so much still to unbox (not to mention the introduction of VAR into international Asian football), let’s start with looking back at the key talking points from the quarter finals.

The Player

While Japan’s attacking intensity has noticeably eased off this tournament, victory over Vietnam saw an element of hope that a return to the positive ways of old is on the horizon. The lack of a classic number 10 has been sorely missed in this Samurai Blue side; the semi-retirement of Keisuke Honda, and lack of form of Shinji Kagawa was eased by the emergence of Shoya Nakajima late last year, but injury put pay to that plan on the eve of the tournament. Filling the void hasn’t been easy, but Ritsu Doan’s performances of late suggest all is not lost for Hajime Moriyasu.

The Groningen man has had an up and down tournament, largely excusable given his age (not 21 until the summer), inexperience (still less than 10 caps) and the deep tactical shape infringed on the squad by Moriyasu. However, with Japan afforded more possession against Vietnam, Doan took on more responsibility, drifting in from the right to initiate build-up with Minamino and Kitagawa (who have rarely looked up to this level), Doan forced notable openings early on, and represented the only source at times Japan had of forcing a breakthrough against a well organised Vietnamese defence, and when breached, a commanding Dang Van Lam in net.

The key moment came, as Doan showed his inventiveness and wiliness to take on his marker, drawing the first VAR penalty awarded at the tournament. Whether there was contact or not (see my opinions on Twitter), the impact was telling and Doan’s responsibility to take the resulting penalty kick (despite Haraguchi’s success last week) illustrates how much his reputation has grown within this team. With Iran ahead of them, in decent form both in attacking areas and in defence, Moriyasu’s tactical expertise will be tested to another level. One thing’s for sure, after this performance Doan’s involvement will be integral going forward.

The Team

The third quarter final between South Korea and Qatar was always likely to be the match to swing a tournament on; the favourites for some (myself included) against the outsiders, this was the true test of both sides mettle. Qatar’s triumph with a late winner, backed up with a fifth consecutive clean sheet has sent waves across Asian football. The side that was only supposed to come to the table in four years’ time at their own controversial hosting of the World Cup, is turning the tables on some of Asia’s elite from the outset.

There was plenty eulogised about Qatar on the build up to the Korea matchup, many suggested they’d test their opponents back line early, that the match would be a much more open showing than we’ve seen so far this tournament. Instead, we witnessed a cagey first half, where Korea dominated possession and Qatar comfortably sat deep, happy to sniff out chances when they came and not to concern themselves too much if their counters broke down quickly. A maturity we’d hardly expect from a fledgling outfit, but there was more to come.

In the second period they burst out, pouncing on weakness and setting the Koreans back on their heels. No one expected anything from Qatar, the pressure was on Korea, with the returning Son Heung-min looking a weary figure under the weight of a nation. In truth Korea looked the side happy with extra time, and with that Qatar pounced. A quick, direct shot from distance from the unlikely source of Abdulaziz Hatem had them caught cold, in which they had little answer to.

Some have already sought to compare this Qatar team to the UAE side of four years ago. And while this is a similar shakeup to the elite order in Asian football, UAE were carried along by individual performances that have rarely been bettered. This Qatar team are exactly the opposite, in that they are a team, headed by a tactically aware coach that has set his stall out to perform. This is just the beginning, 2022 seems an awfully long way away at this point, but an Asian Cup final appearance could well set this side up for a great future.

The Talking Point

Thursday’s quarter-final defeat to Iran brought to close China’s Asian Cup adventure, but also the career of a true managerial great in Marcello Lippi, who is set to retire with a glittering CV that includes a World Cup and two continental club titles. Lippi’s time in charge of China however has been a head-scratcher; on one hand – China made it to the quarter-finals of a continental showpiece, further than anyone had expected pre-tournament, on the other - we’re left questioning how much further has he taken this team and football as a whole in the country?

Lippi arrived to save face, after a miserable start to latter World Cup qualification. Expectations were modest, focus was clear – redevelop this squad ahead of the Asian Cup and bring back some pride in the national team ahead of another World Cup cycle. What came to pass was a meagre reconstruction job, patching up holes where possible but no long-term fixes to China’s quite obvious issues. Lippi predictably relied upon the old guard that brought him success while at Guangzhou Evergrande, selecting the oldest squad at the tournament, captained by 38-year-old Zheng Zhi. He’s hardly leaving his successor with any resources to progress forward with.

The CFA and CSL have emphatically pushed their agenda of late, to increase youth participation in domestic football and upped the amount of national youth camps but stopped short of pushing this on the national team. The few players under-25 that did gain minutes at the Asian Cup were borne out of necessity rather than being chosen on merit. Their success on an individual tournament basis is also misleading given they struggled in overcoming Kyrgyzstan before losing connivingly to Korea in the group stage, ahead of narrowly beating Thailand in the knockouts. Thursday’s humiliation in a defensive capacity against Iran was a heavy blow, that in all reality had been in the pipeline for weeks. China are left with a moderately successful campaign on paper, but with plenty to do in reality if they are to see any noticeable uplift going forward.