AFC Asian Cup 2019 Group D: Arch-rivals have no other foes!

Iran and Iraq are likely to progress into the knockout stages from Group D, untroubled by the likes of Vietnam and Yemen.

Iran is banking on the shooting prowess of Alireza Jahanbakhsh.   -  Getty Images

Group D looks a bit lop-sided strength-wise as Asian heavyweights Iran and Iraq are likely to progress into the knockout stages untroubled by the likes of Vietnam and Yemen.

Iran has forged its identity in the image of its manager and shrewd tactician Carlos Queiroz as a well-drilled defensive unit. Since he took over in 2011, Iran has qualified for back-to-back World Cups. Team Melli, which is currently the No. 1 ranked side in Asia, will be among the favourites to reach the final in Abu Dhabi on February 1. The World Cup in Russia gave further evidence of the Persian side’s progress under Quieroz despite the group stage exit. Iran pushed Spain and Portugal to the brink and was just a goal away from qualifying for the knockout stages.

Since the 2014 World Cup, Queiroz has built his squad around young talents such as Alireza Jahanbakhsh and Sardar Azmoun to add an attacking threat to its defensive set-up. Jahanbakhsh, who was signed for a club record deal by Brighton and Hove Albion at the end of the World Cup, will be the key player for Iran. Several members of the Iran national team have European club football and World Cup experience under their belts and they will be keen to help Iran reach new heights, the team having failed to get past the quarter-final mark in its last three attempts.

Iraq, however, neither has similar resources to draw upon nor the stability of leadership. Srecko Katenac was appointed the coach only in September on a three-year contract and has the immediate task of getting the best out of his young squad at the Asian Cup.

The 2013 AFC U-22 championship-winning group comprising Mahdi Kamil, Humam Tariq, Ahmad Ibrahim and Mohannad Abdul-Raheem form the spine of the side. The stage is also set for the exciting 18-year-old striker Mohammed Dawood to become Iraq’s surprise weapon in the Gulf. Dawood was named the player of the tournament in the AFC U-16 championships in 2016 in India when his six goals shot Iraq to its maiden title.

After a 4-0 hammering at the hands of Argentina in a friendly in October, Iraq managed respectable draws against Saudi Arabia and Bolivia.

Mohammed Dawood (No. 7) could well be the surprise weapon for Iraq.   -  AP

 

Friendlies scheduled against China PR and Palestine will offer Katenac further indications of where his men stand before the start of the tournament. He will be a relieved man to know that his side will start the group stages against the less-fancied Vietnam and Yemen before the marquee fixture against arch-rival Iran.

While Vietnam might lack the experience of playing high-level international tournaments, there has been more awareness of football in the country since South Korea’s Park Hang-Seo took charge of the national and the U-23 sides last year. Park, who was assistant to Guss Hiddink in South Korea’s remarkable run to the semifinals of the 2002 World Cup, has become a national hero in Vietnam. He led the U-23 side to the final of the AFC championships and the semifinals of the Asian Games.

Park took the ‘Golden Dragons’ one step further when it defeated Malaysia over a two-legged final to win the AFF Championship on December 15.

For the AFF championship (formerly known as ASEAN Football Federation championship), he included as many as 16 players who featured in the Asian Games in Jakarta and is likely to persist with a similar youthful group for the Asian Cup.

Little-known Yemen scripted a remarkable story by becoming the last of the 24 teams to qualify for the tournament. It will be a maiden appearance for the country which has seen its domestic league being cancelled since 2014 due to the outbreak of civil war. Abraham Mebratu, who achieved the impossible as the head coach, has since relinquished his position and the team is now being overseen by former Czechoslovakian national Jan Kocian.

Group D Fixtures

January 7: Iran vs Yemen

January 8: Iraq vs Vietnam

January 12: Yemen vs Iraq, Vietnam vs Iran

January 15: Iran vs Iraq, Vietnam vs Yemen