Paul Marcuccitti

Paul Marcuccitti is a passionate soccer fan from Australia who will share his views about the World Cup in this column.

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Asian Cup - The group stage

    The problem with the Internet is that it can store an unlimited amount of pages. If you don't agree with me, it's because you're not an occasional columnist who might go to bed at night knowing that, while you're sleeping, people around the world might be reading one of your articles and laughing their heads off because those predictions you made turned out to be way off the mark.

    It was ok when pundits were confined to newspapers and magazines because you never kept them. The special edition magazine that I bought before the 1990 World Cup finals had a whole heap of predictions in it but God only knows where it is now - it was probably pulped many years ago.

    But you can go through this website and see that I picked France to win the 2002 World Cup and Spain to win last year. (To make matters worse, I can't even prove that I picked West Germany in 1990 and Brazil in 1994.)

    I didn't quite make predictions in my Asian Cup preview but it must be obvious that I gave Vietnam little or no chance of reaching the quarter-finals. Brilliant!

    Still, there's at least one line in that column I'm glad I wrote - I said that I truly expected this to be a cracking tournament. And I was certainly right about that. The underdog host nations (with the exception of Malaysia) have been extremely competitive; favourites have been rattled; and the football has been skilful and attractive. What more can you ask for?

Group A

    The Thais scored less than six minutes after the tournament kicked off after being awarded a questionable penalty but the rest of the first half was largely controlled by Iraq which equalised in the 32nd minute through Younis Mahmoud. The Thais regained some momentum in the second half and Teerathep Winothai could have won the game for them with a late strike but 1-1 would be the final score.

    It was Group A's next match that nearly provided a shock as Oman went within minutes of defeating an Australian side that looked lethargic and ragged in defence. Oman took the lead after half an hour and had some excellent chances to extend its lead in the second half. Only some heroics from Aussie 'keeper Mark Schwarzer kept the score at 1-0. In injury time, Tim Cahill, having come from the bench, scored a trademark goal to give the Socceroos a point that they barely deserved.

    If Australia's first game was poor, its second was disastrous. Though it needed a misjudgement by Schwarzer - hero of the first game - to give Iraq a 1-0 lead at half time, the Socceroos simply weren't firing. Early in the second half, Mark Viduka equalised after a well worked move and for a few minutes it looked like Australia had found its A game. But in the 60th minute, some woeful defending allowed Iraq to regain the lead through Hawar Mulla Mohammed. More chaos at the back allowed the Iraqis to make it 3-1 but don't think that they simply won because the Aussies played badly. Iraq is a talented team and while I questioned its preparation for this tournament, I never doubted its quality. Iraqi midfielder Nashat Akram is one of this tournament's best players.

    After such a fine performance against Australia, Oman simply regressed against Thailand. The Thais spent most of the game in attack and finally went ahead in the 70th minute through substitute Pipat Thonkanya. To the delight of the home crowd, he would score a second and ensure that the Thais would go into the last round of games in a strong position.

    Group A concluded with Thailand v Australia and Oman v Iraq. Thailand and Iraq both had four points and a +2 goal difference while Australia and Oman each had one point and -2. With match result being the first tiebreaker, a single goal win could have been enough for Australia or Oman. But if both won - resulting in all the teams being tied on four points - goal difference would be in play.

    It never got to that because Oman didn't score a goal against Iraq. Despite controlling most of the play in a drab game, the Omanis couldn't find the back of the net and the 0-0 result was enough to give Iraq top place in the group.

    Cruelly, Thailand would be bundled out after losing 4-0 to the Socceroos. Naturally I'm delighted that Australia recovered and reached the quarter-finals but the final score was harsh on Group A's host nation. After going into the half time break a goal down, Thailand attacked bravely in the second half and a revamped Australian defence needed to be at its best to protect its goal. In the 80th minute, Tim Cahill, again on as a substitute, crossed for Mark Viduka and the Socceroos' captain used all his skill and strength to hold off the Thai defence and score. Three minutes later, Cahill crossed again and Viduka scored again - this time with a header. Harry Kewell made it 4-0 and Australia was back in business.

Group B

    Japan's manager Ivica Osim has been a source of fascination for journalists throughout this tournament who have written plenty of stories about his grumpiness and the peculiar answers he gives at media conferences. If you do a search on some of the things he's said, you'll get a good laugh. (My favourite was him yelling "Is there a doctor in the house? That's not my job!" when he was asked about the fitness of his players.)

    What a lot of people seem to have missed is that his team plays with a great deal of joy on the pitch. It's playing well too - perhaps well enough to retain its Asian title.

    Japan didn't make the perfect start when it drew its opening match against Qatar. Despite dominating most of the game, Japan did not take the lead until an hour had been played when a clever finish by Naohiro Takahara broke the deadlock. But the Group B favourite needlessly conceded a late free kick and Uruguayan-born striker Sebastian Quintana equalised. Although Quintana's shot was aided by a deflection, Japan should have been able to kill off the game.

    Vietnam had no chance against the United Arab Emirates - a team with good recent form and Bruno Metsu's inspiring hairdo on the sideline. (Well that's what I thought anyway.) And the first half stuck to the script with UAE controlling most of the play. Striker Faisal Khalil should have converted at least one chance in the first 45 minutes but he didn't and the half time score was 0-0. After half time, Vietnam took the initiative, put some attractive passing moves together, and was rewarded with goals to Huynh Quang Thanh and Le Cong Vinh.

    Four days later, the Vietnamese players proved that the result against UAE was no fluke. Again, the Vietnamese were under pressure in the first half hour. Again, their opponents failed to score. But this time the home side went ahead in the first half when a howler by Qatari goalkeeper Mohamed Saqr allowed Phan Thanh Binh to score with a long-range shot. Though Thanh Binh had another chance a few minutes later, Qatar would be the more threatening team for the rest of the match. Once again, Quintana scored a late equaliser and the final score was 1-1.

    The following day's match between UAE and Japan suddenly became a crunch game between two teams that many fancied to qualify for the quarter-finals. It was the gulf nation that got crunched as an effervescent Japanese side scored three first half goals. Takahara helped himself to another two and a Shunsuke Nakamura penalty effectively ended UAE's tournament. Substitutes Ahmed Al Mahri and Saeed Alkas combined to pull a goal back and the final score was 3-1.

    With two points from two matches, Qatar could reach the quarter-finals with a win over UAE. At half time, the Qataris were on track. Although UAE had more of the ball in the first 45 minutes, the only goal came when Quintana scored from the penalty spot. Nevertheless, the much-changed UAE side pressed on in the second half and a Saeed Alkas header levelled the scores on the hour. A draw was never going to be enough for Qatar but UAE scored an injury time winner and relegated its neighbour to the bottom of the group.

    Japan produced a wonderful display of football and routed Vietnam 4-1 but both teams qualified for the quarter-finals courtesy of UAE's win. A Keita Suzuki own goal gave the host nation a shock early lead but Seiichiro Maki equalised a few minutes later. Yashuhito Endo then gave the Japanese a 2-1 lead with a direct free kick and they made sure of the win - and group leadership - after a beautiful move resulted in a superb strike from Shunsuke Nakamura. Maki scored again to make it 4-1 and Japan showed that it's the form team of the tournament. Australia will be the underdog when the two nations meet in the quarter-finals. Vietnam - the only host nation to reach the last eight - now travels to Thailand to face Iraq.

Group C

    The host nations have impressed in this Asian Cup. Except for Malaysia - the only team in the tournament to fail to score a point. In the group's opening game, Wang Dong and Han Peng helped themselves to two goals each as China smashed the Malaysians 5-1. The hosts had a few bright moments - and their late goal by substitute Indra Putra Mahayuddin was a beauty - but it was evident that they wouldn't be challenging for a place in the quarter-finals.

    Uzbekistan went into its opening match against Iran without suspended striker Maksim Shatskikh. But it was an Iranian that gave the Uzbeks the lead after quarter of an hour. In an unusual error of judgment, Rahman Rezaei, who's good enough to play in an Italian club's defence, headed a long ball over his 'keeper and into the back of the net and the Iranians looked rattled before regaining some composure later in the half. Ali Karimi and Vahid Hashemian had already shown their creativity for Iran in the first half and the introduction of Javad Kazemian gave the Group C favourite more ammunition after the break. Seyed Jalal Hosseini equalised in the 55th minute when he rose to head a Mehdi Mahdavikia corner into the back of the net and the Iranians' were further rewarded for their pressure when Kazemian finished a fabulous move to make the final score 2-1.

    Shatskikh was back for Uzbekistan's next match and he quickly discovered that Malaysian hospitality extended to its defenders allowing opposing teams to help themselves to goals. The Dynamo Kiev striker opened the scoring by heading home a free kick in the 10th minute and Timur Kapadze made it 2-0 after a fine run into the box. The home side was good enough to create some chances but it would concede a third goal before half time when Ulugbek Bakaev converted a penalty. The Uzbeks didn't add a fourth until the 85th minute when substitute Aziz Ibragimov scored with an intelligent volley. Shatskikh then got his second and Malaysia had conceded five goals again.

    Iran managed to concede first again against China - and this time Team Melli went two goals down. China's first goal was from a brilliant direct free kick from Shao Jiayi and his team continued to create chances in the first half hour. The Chinese then went 2-0 up thanks to a great finish by Mao Jianqing. Now, nearly ten years ago, I attended an international match that saw an Iranian team successfully come back from two goals down. I'd rather not talk about that particular game too much but it was in the back of my mind so I wasn't about to write the Iranians off. They sprang to life after going two behind and, after finally forcing some saves by Chinese custodian Li Leilei, the Iranians reduced the deficit before half time with a great free kick of their own. Mehdi Mahdavikia just touched the ball for Ferydoon Zandi who smashed it home. In the second half, Iran simply occupied the Chinese half and created several chances. The equalising goal came with less than 20 minutes to go - a header by Javad Nekounam. China had the best chance for a winner but the final score would be 2-2.

    Uzbekistan simply had to beat China to advance to the quarter-finals; the Chinese just needed a draw. For 70 minutes, it looked like China would succeed. The Uzbeks had more of the play in the first half but both sides had chances to break the deadlock. Maksim Shatskikh was looking especially dangerous but it could have been China taking the lead when Wang Dong hit the crossbar. Only a few minutes later, Shatskikh did score. His header from a free kick was blocked by 'keeper Yang Jun (Li Leilei was injured) but the rebound came back his way. Not long after that, Victor Karpenko fired in another free kick, Yang Jun couldn't handle it, and Timur Kapadze made it 2-0. Alexander Geynrikh made it 3-0 in injury time and China went out of the tournament.

    So the Iranians simply needed a win to top Group C. And, despite an improved Malaysian performance, they got it. Admittedly the Malaysians deployed something like a 6-4-1 formation but at least they made Iran work for its 2-0 win. A Javad Nekounam penalty opened the scoring in the first half and Andranik Teymourian scored with a little more than ten minutes of the match remaining.

Group D

    For such a small country, Bahrain does rather well in football. But every time the gulf nation is on the verge of glory, well, things go wrong somehow.

    The Bahrainis' tournament didn't get off to a great start against Group D host Indonesia when Budi Sudarsono scored a fine goal after less that a quarter of an hour. But the buoyant home crowd then saw Sayed Mahmood Jalal equalise 15 minutes later after some pinball in the Indonesian penalty box. Striker Bambang Pamungkas (the Indonesians are a commentator's delight) made it 2-1 in the 62nd minute when he scored from a rebound after a sensational long-range shot from Firman Utina was parried onto the post. Bahrain's Rashed Al Dosari came close late in the game but a draw would have flattered his team.

    Saudi Arabia and South Korea met in an early heavyweight bout and, not surprisingly, both were cautious. Yasser Al Qahtani could have scored in the opening minute but there would be few other chances until the first half ended with a lively few minutes. A fine Cho Jae-jin header gave the Koreans the lead in the 66th minute (and he was rewarded by being substituted immediately). But for most of the match South Korea didn't look too sharp up forward. A dubious penalty gave Saudi Arabia the chance to make it 1-1 and Yasser Al Qahtani made no mistake from the spot. With just minutes left on the clock, the game was held up by a power failure! After more than 20 minutes, the lights went back on and though the Saudis ended the game with a late attacking flurry the result would be a draw.

    Against Indonesia, Saudi Arabia would score a late goal to record a 2-1 win. An Al Qahtani header from a perfect Ahmed Al Bahri cross gave the Saudis an early lead but the Indonesians hit back quickly when Elie Aiboy showed great composure to round 'keeper Yasser Al Mosailem and slot the ball home. In the second half the Saudis took control of the game but Indonesia's defence and goalkeeper Yandri Pitoy heroically kept the score level. Unfortunately for the home side, Saad Al Harthi scored for Saudi Arabia with a header from a free kick deep into injury time.

    Let's not forget about the good old Bahrainis because they produced their best performance when they upset South Korea 2-1.They had to come from behind though as the Koreans scored an early goal through an excellent Kim Do-heon volley. Bahrain rarely threatened but suddenly produced a shock equaliser late in the first half through Salman Isa. The Koreans lifted their game in the second half but squandered their chances. They paid a heavy price when some slack defending allowed striker Ismail Abdullatif to score a winner just five minutes from time. With just one point from two games, the highly-fancied Koreans were in serious danger of elimination.

    South Korea now had to beat Indonesia and hope that Saudi Arabia didn't draw with Bahrain. A draw would have been enough for Indonesia unless Bahrain defeated the Saudis. Pim Verbeek made six changes to the Korean team and they seemed to be working as his side controlled play and reduced Indonesia to a few counter attacks. In the 35th minute, Lee Chun-soo made a strong lateral run, passed to Kim Jung-woo and his shot made it 1-0 with the help of a deflection. South Korea squandered opportunities to score more goals in the second half but the Indonesians rarely threatened and the final whistle ended their hopes of a place in the last eight. The Koreans have been unconvincing but they live to fight another day. They will face Iran in the quarter-finals.

    Remember, a draw would now be good enough for Bahrain and ... they lost 4-0. But in fairness, Saudi Arabia turned on its best performance to take the three points and win Group D. The Bahrainis started brightly but fell behind to an Ahmed Al Mousa goal in the 18th minute. Again the underdogs pressed forward but they would find themselves 2-0 down when a magnificent build up resulted in a goal for Abdulrahman Al Qahtani. Bahrain would be further punished for its inability to take chances when a wonder strike by Taisir Al Jassam flew into the back of the net in the 68th minute. There was enough time for Al Jassam to get a second and put Bahrain out of its misery. The Saudis now face Uzbekistan in the quarter-finals.

Quarter-Final line up

Iraq v Vietnam (in Thailand)
Iran v South Korea (in Malaysia)
Japan v Australia (in Vietnam)
Saudi Arabia v Uzbekistan (in Indonesia)

    The winners of the first two listed matches play each other in the semi-finals (so we could get Iraq v Iran!) and the Japan-Australia winner plays the Saudi-Uzbekistan winner.

    What a fascinating four games they will be. I can't wait to tell you about them!



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