DOHA: The second round of Asian Cup group games threw up a few surprises when the pre-tournament favourites were given a reality check as physical Arab teams showed they had closed the gap considerably on their more illustrious opponents.
Japan, four-time champions and the highest-ranked team in the competition, were upset 2-1 by Iraq while South Korea nearly lost to Jordan for the first time before an injury-time own goal spared their blushes.
Iraq had a clear strategy to unsettle Japan, who struggled with the physicality of their West Asian counterparts in a febrile atmosphere where the crowd of largely Iraqi fans made it feel like a home game for the Lions of Mesopotamia.
Iraq could probably have scored more if not for the injury to their striker Aymen Hussein, who scored both goals before the break but did not come out for the second half.
However, Iraq were even effective without the ball, dismantling Japan’s possession game with several tackles while they frustrated the Samurai Blue and resorted to tactical fouls to upset their rhythm.
“We analysed before the game and knew how Iraq would play at the start, they did play very aggressively. Unfortunately we couldn’t handle it, I know we need to do more,” Japan coach Hajime Moriyasu said.
Iraq coach Jesus Casas became a national hero after they claimed their first victory over Japan in 42 years and the Spaniard said he was proud of the players he picked for the tournament.
“Since I took charge, I choose players that can be fighters but good players too. The difference in this level is you need balance between fighting and quality,” Casas said.
Likewise, South Korea were frustrated by a tactically disciplined Jordan in a 2-2 draw. Juergen Klinsmmann’s South Korea side did not score from open play, netting one from the penalty spot and an own goal in added time.
Jordan were not only compact in midfield and defence but their forward line made life miserable for the South Koreans, constantly harrying them into making quick decisions and forcing turnovers.
“What they did really well was they overpowered us physically in the one-v-one battles. There’s an old saying in football that you have to win your one-v-one battles,” Klinsmann said.
“Jordan fought for every single ball as a unit, as a team. Different styles clashed there. Every game we play against Jordan, against Bahrain, we learn. We need to find solutions.
“I’m very pleased to see the reaction after we went 2-1 down. We won the last seven games and you lose the feeling of going a goal down. The team had to swallow the fact that Jordan were 2-1 up and had to react.”
“THEY CAN HURT YOU”
South Korea skipper Son Heung-min, who plays in the Premier League for Tottenham Hotspur, is no stranger to physicality but he said it was another example of how teams can hurt them, having been on the receiving end of crunching tackles against Bahrain as well.
“In the Asian Cup, there’s never an easy game. If you’re not ready mentally and physically, they can hurt you,” Son said.
“As a player, as a team, we learned something from this game. Luckily, it happened in the group stage.”
Jordan coach Hussein Ammouta said “Arab teams playing on Arab turf” in Qatar must take the fight to their opponents.
“What’s certain is that every national team must believe in their capabilities and should not go into a game insecure because of technical deficiencies. We went into the game with a positive attitude,” the Moroccan said.