AFC Asian Cup 2019: Favourites Iran avoid early wobble; troubled Yemen take solace in flashes of brilliance

Kaushal Shukla
After making an ideal start, Iran head towards tougher assignments that will test their credentials at pre-tournament favourites Iraq. As for Yemen, it’s all about enjoying and absorbing the atmosphere of this platform before heading back to the abyss in their homeland.

Iran's clash with Yemen was a match between teams with contrasting calibre, ambition and preparation. Iran recently played in a FIFA World Cup in which they almost qualified from a group that included teams like Portugal and Spain. Yemen, at that time, were figuring out a way to get all their players together and find a place to train away from their war-torn homeland ahead of their maiden AFC Asian Cup appearance.

The result, a scoreline of 5-0 in Iran's favour, was an expected outcome, but the game wasn't a foregone conclusion considering the results elsewhere in the tournament and how the first 20 minutes of the game panned out.

Yemen were matched the superior Iran side in the early exchanges and showed great athleticism in closing their opponents down. The pressure yielded two big chances for Yemen which had Iran slightly jolted.

In the 7th minute, Ahmed Al-Sarori, who plays for Brazilian side Central, got on the wrong side of the Iranian defender to latch onto a pass that pierced the gap between Iran's left-back and centre-back. Al-Sarori, who had a clear sight at goal, couldn't hold his nerve and blasted his effort inches over the crossbar.

Four minutes later, Abdulwasea Al-Matari found himself in a good position inside Iran's box, but dragged his shot wide. At the other end, Yemen goalkeeper Saoud Al-Sowadi pulled off a brilliant one-handed save to deny Mehdi Taremi the opening goal. It seemed Iran would go down the same route as other favourites, Australia and South Korea. The Socceroos suffered a shock defeat to Jordan in their opening game, while the Koreans labored to a 1-0 win over debutants Philippines.

But a goalkeeping error from Al-Soadi handed Taremi a tap-in to put Iran in front and the floodgates opened. Yemen's lack of preparation was exposed as the team's organisation collapsed after the first goal. Yemen, though, weren't sitting ducks waiting for the full-time whistle to arrive for the rest of the game. The players kept running till the very end in the hope of conjuring up something to show for their efforts. Thanks to Iran's quality, it all ended in vain.

"We only had a short time to prepare and our players could not handle the physicality of Iran. The lack of experience also played a part. Iran are a team full of experienced players, some of who played in last year's FIFA World Cup. The real problem for us was the quick goals Iran scored (in the first half)," Yemen coach Jan Kocian admitted after the game.

Yemen's football league has been suspended due to a war in the country that has split the nation into two factions. Nine of the players from the current squad, who ply their trade in their national league, were involved in league action only sparingly. Few players have managed to find clubs in Qatar, but not many have managed to establish themselves as regulars with their new teams.

Yemen trained in Saudi Arabia ahead of the AFC Asian Cup and played three friendly games in the build-up to the competition. Having lost all three without scoring a goal, coach Kocian had a task on his hands to get his squad motivated for their bow in such a big competition.

With the AFC Asian Cup serving as rare reason to rejoice for Yemen, a good showing in UAE would go a long way to bring some joy to the war-hit nation. Kocian promises there's more to come from Yemen, who, he feels, would fancy their chances of making a mark against Iraq and Vietnam in the other group games.

Iran, who were cheered by a decent number of fans at the Mohammed Bin Zayed Stadium in Abu Dhabi, warmed up well for the title challenge ahead. Iran haven't been crowned Asian champions for 43 years and the nation believes the current side, that has made it to back-to-back World Cups, has it in them to end the drought.

After a few early hiccups in the game, Iran turned on the style and totally dominated their rivals. Coach Carlos Queiroz was pleased the way his team raised the level of performance as the game progressed and felt his team's style is distinct from most in Asia.

"I'm pleased as we did well to play our game. The way we press from the back with the centre-backs pressing the inside of the midfield of the opponents is rare in Asian football. I don't think many teams play the way we do and I was glad we controlled the game for 90 minutes," the former Real Madrid manager said after the game.

The 65-year-old also hailed his team's focus in the opening game of the competition and felt surprising results elsewhere allowed Iran to pay special attention to the opening matches.

"My experience tells me opening matches are always tough. The results in this tournament so far have proved that. I told my players that if you don't play with focus, any team can beat any other side. We were a bit nervous at the start, but then we played our game well. The first game is always important and it's great to have this result with a lot of goals," he added.

After making an ideal start, Iran head towards tougher assignments that will test their credentials, such as the clash with pre-tournament favourites Iraq. As for Yemen, it's all about enjoying and absorbing the atmosphere of this platform before heading back to the abyss in their homeland.

Also See: Indian national football team performing excellently under coach Stephen Constantine, says AIFF

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AFC Asian Cup 2019: Brief profiles of India's 23-member squad ahead of first match against Thailand

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