Dubai: Iran’s long-time Portuguese coach Carlos Queiroz perhaps summed up the mood best when he pointed out that the “real Asian Cup competition starts now”.
The 65-year-old coach — perhaps the longest-serving among impatient Asian footballing nations — couldn’t have been more correct, after more nearly eight years at the helm and a personal witness to their quarter-final exit in 2015.
The 36 group-stage matches that concluded on Thursday have not only given fans plenty of thrills, but also thrown up the best 16 teams who have booked their places in the next stages of the competition,
It will be a couple of days’ rest for the teams before action recommences at the eight venues of the 2019 AFC Asian Cup as eight teams from West Asia join six East Asians and a couple of Central nations in the next stages of the competition. Jordan will get the ball rolling as they take on Vietnam at 3pm at Al Nasr Club’s Al Maktoum Stadium on Sunday.
Jordan have been one of the surprises of the tournament following their stunning 1-0 win over defending champions Australia in their opening match. Nicknamed the ‘Chivalrous’, this is their fourth entry in this continental competition and their best has been the quarter-finals on debut at the 2004 tournament and at the 2011 edition,
Stung by that first game upset, Australia came up with two improved performances that saw the defending champions better Palestine and Syria, thanks to two solid team efforts and a standout show from Midtjylland striker Awer Mabil. The next opponents for the Socceroos will be sturdy Uzbekistan, whose best has been a fourth place at the 2011 edition.
The meeting between Iran and Iraq that ended in a goalless deadlock was another highlight with both teams threatening and showing that football between the two neighbours is more than just a game. While Iran had a better share of the exchanges the encounter also signalled the earnestness of Iraq, surprise champions of the 2007 edition. Iran have set up an interesting clash with Gulf champions Oman, while their neighbours will be up against 2022 Fifa World Cup hosts Qatar.
Qatar’s status as a continental powerhouse has always been self-demolished until now. On the nine occasions that they have participated, Qatar’s best has been two quarter-final appearances — 2000, and when they hosted the event in 2011. However, with a squad to prepare for the next edition of the Fifa World Cup, the Qataris seem to have already found their rhythm winning all three games in Group E.
South Korea and Japan are the only other two teams who join Qatar with maximum points at the end of the group stages. With Tottenham striker Son Heung-min joining his teammates in their 2-0 win against China, the Koreans have shown they mean business as they prepare for Bahrain in their next match in Dubai.
And finally, the hosts UAE seem to have landed up with the easiest of opponents after setting up Kyrgyzstan in their next match at Zayed Sports City Stadium in the capital. Thailand, beaten soundly by India in the opener, booked the second spot from Group A, leaving Bahrain as the third-best team.
“I really don’t care who my next opponent is. If we want to be champions then we will have to beat them at some stage or the other,” Iraq’s Slovenian coach Srecko Katanec had summed up during the week.
At the end of it all, football will be the true winner with the best team being crowned champions of Asian on February 1.
Round of 16
Jordan v Vietnam, 3pm, Al Maktoum Stadium, Dubai
Thailand v China, 6pm, Hazza Bin Zayed Stadium, Al Ain
Iran v Oman, 9pm, Mohammad Bin Zayed Stadium, Abu Dhabi
Japan v Saudi Arabia, 3pm, Sharjah Stadium, Sharjah
Australia v Uzbekistan, 6pm, Khalifa Bin Zayed Stadium, Al Ain
UAE v Kyrgyzstan, 9pm, Zayed Sports City Stadium, Abu Dhabi
South Korea v Bahrain, 5pm, Rashid Stadium, Dubai
Qatar v Iraq, 8pm, Al Nahyan Stadium, Abu Dhabi