The Socceroos have crashed out of the Asian Cup at the quarter-final stage for the second tournament running, paying for their profligacy as a late Korea Republic penalty and extra time free kick overturned Craig Goodwin’s opener, which was so nearly enough.
Graham Arnold’s decision to spend his substitutes implementing a back five in the dying stages of regular time almost paid dividends, but left no room to move once Hwang Hee-chan’s penalty forced extra time. Son Heung-min’s free kick then proved the difference, before Aiden O’Neill’s red card largely sealed the result.
‘[Arnold’s] was an all-in move. He’d used all his subs – I spoke with a few players after and they said if it comes off we look like geniuses, and if it doesn’t, well, we saw what happened’, The Asian Game’s Scott McIntyre told Box2Box.
‘Once they’d gone to extra time there was no way back, the only thing they could do was go back to a back four and stick Harry Souttar up front, which we’ve seen from the Socceroos in the past. It’s a bit agricultural, a bit ugly and a bit of a throwback, but there were no other options.
‘It was an all-in gamble, one that Arnie lost, and it’s just a shame because the tournament was opening up so nicely. There’s been no standout team, in the semi-finals they’ve all struggled, so it’s such a shame because they were so close.’
South Korea remains a chance to win their long-awaited third Asian Cup and break a 64-year tournament drought, and move onto a semi-final against Jordan, who had twice reached the quarter-finals but have never progressed to this point.
Their extraordinary, controversial 3-2 win over Iraq in the round of 16 was backed up by a 1-0 win over Tajikistan, and McIntyre sees no reason why they can’t drive on to the final despite the absences of Salem Al-Ajain and Ali Olwan to suspension against Korea.
‘You wouldn’t have expected them to, but why can’t they? Musa Al-Taamari, the right winger playing in France is a brilliant player… they’re two matches away, have genuine quality in the ranks, quite a lot of Jordanian support here as well and if Qatar go out on the other side of the draw everyone will be on their bandwagon.’
Hosts and holders Qatar also remain in spite of their interrupted build-up, which saw Carlos Queiroz depart abruptly and replaced by the lesser-known Tintin Marquez. They find themselves two wins from defending their title and now meet Iran, who appear this deep in a tournament for the first time since their treble from 1968-76.
‘On Queiroz leaving six weeks before the tournament, I spoke with one of his assistants recently and they said nobody really knows what happens, it was a massive surprise. They’ve brought in a coach who knows the league, which helps, but nobody expected them to get this far given that turmoil right on the eve of competition.
‘Akram Afif – man, he’s one of the best players I’ve ever seen in Asian football, right up there with the early days of Omar Abdulrahman. At this point he could be anything, could be starring in the Premier League, no questions asked, so does he have the ambition? I’d love to see him play at a really high level.
‘Almoez Ali, a star of the previous tournament not so influential but has the quality, Hassan Al-Haydos has chipped in with some important goals as well, so they are in with a huge shot of winning it, too.’