The 2019 edition of the AFC Asian Cup was, in many ways, a milestone tournament. Perhaps, therefore, it is appropriate that a new name was etched onto world football’s second-oldest continental tournament.
Few could argue with Qatar’s success after the Gulf nation broke the hearts of three 2018 Fifa World Cup Russia participants during a stunning run to glory. Seven successive wins and a remarkable defensive record headlined a slew of statistical highs achieved by Al Annabi.
Qatar’s 3-1 win over record four-time winners Japan in the final concluded a month of near-perfection from Felix Sanchez’s charges.
A win for one of Asia’s lesser lights is somewhat emblematic of the rapidly growing depth across the world’s largest continent. An increase to 24-teams proved to be far from bloated, with many of the newer names enjoying a landmark tournament. The likes of Vietnam, Kyrgyzstan and Oman, to name just a few, will likely look back on the tournament as a turning point.
Qatar’s success was simply extraordinary. This, after all, is a nation that had not won a single Asian Cup match on foreign soil since 1984.
Qatar wrapped up the group-stage with a 2-0 win over Saudi Arabia, before 1-0 victories over 2007 winners Iraq and a strong Korea Republic. There was a dominant 4-0 semi-final win over UAE, but the best was yet to come. Two spectacular goals in the early stages of the final from breakthrough star Almoez Ali and Abdulaziz Hatem were worthy of any final, and left four-time winners Japan with no answers.
- Almoez Ali eclipsed Ali Daei’s 23-year old goalscoring record with a nine-goal return.
- Qatar became the first side to reach the final with six successive cleansheets.
- Iran extended their unbeaten group-stage record to 20 matches dating back to 1996.
- Uzbekistan goalkeeper Ignatiy Nesterov became the first player to feature in 5 tournaments.
- Qatar are the third new winner in four editions following Iraq (2007) and Australia (2015).
The big names
Japan will take positives from their campaign, with a host of fresh names gaining invaluable experience ahead of 2022 World Cup qualifying. Defeat in the final left new coach Hajime Moriyasu just shy of becoming the first person to win the Asian Cup as both player and coach.
With plenty of familiar names absent, there were some growing pains under Moriyasu, notably a comeback victory over outsiders Kyrgyzstan and a most un-Japanese rate of 28 per cent possession in a 1-0 win over Saudi Arabia.
Japan’s tournament was far from vintage at times. They won their first five games by a single goal – the first nation to do so in the competition’s history.
Top-ranked Asian team Iran seemed on track for success after a strong group stage was followed by confident wins over Oman and China PR. But Team Melli, featuring many Russia 2018 campaigners, unexpectedly fell apart in the second half of the semi-final against Japan, with the 3-0 defeat spelling the end of Carlos Queiroz’s eight-year tenure.
Like Iran, Korea Republic, who were also seeking to end a long continental drought, showed early promising signs. They had conceded just once in four straight wins heading into the quarter-final against Qatar, but a Hatem long-range special undid their hopes.
Holders Australia were in trouble before the tournament started with their injury woes headlined by the absence of midfield ace Aaron Mooy. The Socceroos dominated possession in all five matches but a failure to unpick tight defences was a constant theme, which eventually proved their undoing in a last-eight defeat against UAE.
Saudi Arabia rarely got going and a group-stage defeat against Qatar was followed by a single-goal loss against Japan, bringing the curtain down on the Juan Antonio Pizzi era. China endued a similar campaign, struggling in the group stage before and suffering a hefty 3-0 quarter-final loss to Iran. China poster-boy Wu Lei defied injury problems to score one of the goals of the tournament, and earn a move to Espanyol.
Qatar aside, it is perhaps Vietnam who made the most progress at UAE 2018. Featuring many graduates of their successful AFC U-23 Championship side, Vietnam constantly impressed both technically and tactically, and Japan needed all their know-how to earn a 1-0 quarter-final win.
Kyrgyzstan enjoyed a stunning debut at continental level. They opened with an unlucky 2-1 loss against China, but Vitalij Lux starred with a hat-trick in a 3-1 win over Philippines to advance. The Central Asians then pushed UAE to the brink, hitting the frame of the goal on several occasions, in one of the matches of the tournament.
Oman won through to the knockout stage for the first time in the most dramatic manner imaginable, with a 93rd-minute goal enough to help them advance. There was also history for India, who won their first Asian Cup match since 1964 with a rollicking 4-1 victory over Thailand.
This article was first published on the official Fifa website