Asian Cup Review

Qatar winning their first Asian Cup 
The Asian Cup came to an end on Friday 1st February with Qatar becoming champions of Asia for the first time. It was to be an impressive display from the 2022 World Cup hosts but it was to come with its own controversy.  

First to the beginning

This was to be the first Asian Cup to take place with 24-teams and in total every country was competitive. As out of the 24-sides to take part in the UAE at the Asian Cup only four nations came home without picking up a single point. From these four nations, the most disappointing would have to be North Korea.

The Group matches threw up a few interesting results too with not everything going to plan for the bigger nations. Opening weekend was to kick-off these surprise results as Australia lost to Jordan and India thrashed Thailand. A first big shock came then when after Thailand went down 4-1 to India their Serbian coach Milovan Rajevac was sacked to be replaced by a caretaker coach in Sirisak Yodyardthai for the remainder of their tournament.

Then onto the Monday and we saw two East Asian sides kick off their Asian Cup. This was in the shape of China and South Korea in Group C. China went first and after a terrible first half the team with the oldest squad run out 2-1 winners over Kyrgyzstan. South Korea then later in the day did not get many people excited but they did the job as they overcame Philippines 1-0.

Repping East Asia and the North Koreans did not keep up the winning streak with them losing 4-0 to a strong Saudi Arabia side. It was to be another poor performance from the side as their defensive tactics clearly didn't work once again. Then to make matters worse Han Kwang-Song their starman playing for Perugia in Italy was sent off in the first half.
Han Kwang Song is showing the red card
It was the turn of Japan to make it three wins from four for the East Asian sides. They then did just that in a very entertaining match in which they were losing at half-time. They did, however, get going in the second half and overcame Turkmenistan 3-2.

The first round of games then progressed as expected for the East Asian sides and this was to continue throughout the Group stages. As South Korea and Japan won their Groups with maximum points meanwhile China went through in Group C in second place behind South Korea. China finished second after coming out second best to South Korea in the final match of the Group.

Next over in Group E with North Korea, the country finished bottom having conceded 14 and scoring just the one goal. The one goal came in the 4-1 defeat over Lebanon in the final match of the Group with the country already heading home.

In all North Korea where very disappointing and the side ultra-defensive tactics are clearly something that needs work on. I don't think the signs of things turning around for them in the near future are good. Although if they do wish to improve they will have to get more from their European based players Han Kwang-Song (Italy), Pak Kwang-Ryong (Austria) and Choe Song-Hyok (Italy).

Last up was the Japanese and they made it three wins from three as they topped Group F overcoming an improving Uzbekistan 2-1. Hajime Moriyasu's men in truth did not too much to excite fans in their Group matches but they did enough and that's what you need in tournament football. In the absence of some key players of the past, the new look Japan team did step up with players such as Ōsako, Doan and Minamino impressing.
Yuya Osako had an impressive tournament

To the knockout rounds 

To the knockout rounds and the three East Asian sides, all left in the competition made it to the quarter-final stage as was expected. This was the stage at which we thought things would get interesting and this was to prove to be the case. 

The last eight started as expected with not much to report as Japan continued to march on with a professional 1-0 win over an improving Vietnam side. Next up was China and they had Iran the tournament favourites and the highest ranked side in Asia. Lippi's men did as expected and defended poorly with Iran running out 3-0 winners thanks to three defensive errors. This was to be the Italian's last game in charge as he resigned after the match. 

Then on to South Korea and they could not overcome a well drilled and ever more impressive Qatar side. This meant South Korea wait for Asian Cup glory would continue as it was Qatar who would progress to the semi-final thanks to a 1-0 win. It was to be a disappointing end for Bento's men who looked like they could really push for glory this year. I think this is only the beginning for the new generation and with a few older heads now retiring the 2022 World Cup qualifiers will be the perfect chance for Bento's generation to grow. 

Last up in the final eight we saw a bit of a shock with the holders Australia who had been poor throughout exit the Asian Cup at the hands of hosts UAE. These results meant that Qatar would come up against UAE in the match would cause much controversy. Meanwhile, in the quieter of the matches, Iran and Japan did battle for the other place in the final. 

Then first to the second semi-final as Qatar overcame UAE 4-0 to reach the final. It was to be an impressive result but it will be remembered for off the field actions.  This was seen with the UAE fans throwing shoes at the Qatar players. It's a shame that the Asian Cup slogan 'Bringing Asia Together' couldn't extend to these fans. 

The reason for this conflict between fans is down to a boycott of Qatar by countries in the Middle East such as The United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. The reason for this boycott is down to expected ties Qatar have with extremists, accusations it should be said that is denied. 

Back to the football and Japan booked their place in the final with a very convincing second-half performance against Iran. As after a level first 45 minutes, we saw Japan finally get into top gear and they defeated the Iranians 3-0. 

Final time 

Then there were two and it was Asian Cup final time with Japan looking for a record fifth Asian Cup title and Qatar were looking for their first. The sides couldn't have had much of a different footballing history. The last time Japan had won the Asian Cup was in Qatar in 2011. This was a tournament in which the hosts lost out 3-2 to Japan in at the quarter-final stage.  

Since then Japan has brought on a new generation, one which looks set to do big things. As for Qatar since 2011 they have been getting ready to host the 2022 World Cup a bid which caused a massive stir around the footballing world. They have since brought in a new generation a fact which has caused a few issues with questions being asked of some of the players eligibility. 

Putting all the side issues away now and looking towards the final a one-off game for the chance to be champions of Asia. It was clear despite Qatar's very impressive run to the final in which they scored 17 goals and conceded none Japan where still clear favourites. 

The sides didn't want to listen to the bookies and Qatar started quickly and never let up. Japan have played better but they had performed worse in the tournament and won. In truth Qatar was hungrier all over the pitch and won deservedly. 

To win a cup you have to have your players up for it early on and when you're the underdogs to get an early goal is always a huge boost. This is exactly what the country from the middle east produced and they were, in fact, two up before the half-hour mark. 

Both goals in the opening 45 minutes are well worth checking out in the video below. The first came from Almoez Ali who became the record goalscorer at an Asian Cup with nine goals. This was through an overhead kick and also involved juggling of the ball in the Japan box. 

The displays from Ali have not gone unnoticed around the world and even Messi has praised the striker since the Asian Cup. He would no doubt like to join Messi one day by playing for a top European side this was seen with the golden boot winner saying "Of course, I look for European teams because in our league in Asia, not only in Qatar but in all of Asia, we know teams are weak and we see that at the World Cup. They do not go far. Always, they go out". 

If the 22-year-old player of the tournament ends up in Europe time will tell but he definitely showed what he could offer during the competition. He was not the only one as Abdulaziz Hatem also scored a great final goal in the 26th minute of the match. The 29-year-old is maybe too late on in his career however to get a chance in Europe or to even play at the 2022 World Cup. 

Despite the positives from Qatar, Japan should and could have been better in the final. They came into the game after a very good display against Iran in which their forward line exploited defensive frailties. They might then have been against the best defence in the tournament but had they gone for it and attacked am sure they could have broken through it. 

A fine example of this was seen with the Japan goal as we saw fast flowing passing football cut through a very rigid Qatari backline. This kind of football was shown with fast one-touch passing and ended with Minamino breaking the offside trap and scoring from close range. It was to be Japan's only goal of the final and the sole goal Qatar where to concede at the finals. 

Qatar then held on and even picked up a third from the penalty spot through Akram Afif as the new Asian champions run out 3-1 winners. 

In all both these sides have exciting futures ahead with their young squads. I very much expect Japan will join Qatar at the 2022 World Cup and I think both nations could trouble the bigger footballing countries if they progress in the same manner. For now, Japan needs to just regroup and look at the positives and for Qatar, they have moved 38 places in the world rankings and now just need to keep the run going. 

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