Iran attempt to end 40 years of Asian Cup pain
SYDNEY (AP) — Iran’s squad arrived in Australia for the Asian Cup aiming to end nearly 40 years of football heartache with a long overdue continental triumph.
Team Melli must first overcome rivals from closer to home in an all-West Asian Group C, which includes Qatar, United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.
Asia’s top-ranked team at No. 51, Iran has not progressed past the Asian Cup quarterfinals since 1996, falling well short of its most successful era when it won three successive tournaments from 1968 to 1976.
The ace for Iran could be its coach, former Portugal and Real Madrid manager Carlos Queiroz, who guided the squad to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. Queiroz was expected to leave his post after Iran’s group-stage exit from Brazil, but stayed on in what appears to be a vote of confidence in his methods.
Iran’s captain and talisman, Javad Nekounam of Osasuna in Spain, brings some star power to a tournament light on high-profile players and will be aiming to continue his goal-scoring form from qualifying, during which he netted four times.
Iran opens against Bahrain at Melbourne on Jan. 11.
Despite the continuing off-field distractions surrounding Qatar’s successful 2022 World Cup bid and subsequent preparations for the tournament, the Qatari squad enters the Asian Cup in strong form on the field.
Qatar was impressive at the recent Gulf Cup, where it beat Oman in the semifinals and Saudi Arabia in the final.
Algerian coach Djamel Belmadi has opted for youth above experience in attack, leaving veteran striker Sebastian Soria at home for Congolese-born Mohammed Tresor Abdullah and naturalized striker Mohammad Montari to support playmaker and former Asian Player of the Year Khalfan Ibrahim.
Qatar was ousted in the Asian Cup quarterfinals on home soil in 2011, losing to eventual champion Japan — a team it could well meet again in the same stage here.
The Qataris open in Canberra against the United Arab Emirates in a match that could be decisive for both nations’ prospects of reaching the knockout stages.
UAE breezed through qualifying, winning five games and drawing one on its way to topping its group.
Striker Ali Mabkhout notched five goals to jointly lead all scorers across the continent, as UAE found the net 18 times in qualifying, a mark only matched by group rivals Iran.
The UAE’s good form continued into the Gulf Cup, where the defending champs navigated their group undefeated, with Mabkhout scoring four times in three games. Saudi Arabia ended the UAE run in the semifinals, but the team bounced back to beat Oman in the third-place playoff.
Bahrain, the lowest-ranked team in the group at 125th, heads into the tournament in turmoil after a poor Gulf Cup campaign, which yielded no goals and the firing of coach Adnan Hamad.
New coach Marjan Eid has had little time to address Bahrain’s main weakness — its lack of potency in front of goal. Eid will lean on 28-year-old striker Ismail Abdul-Latif, who scored twice against Saudi Arabia in a friendly last week, to spearhead Bahrain’s attack.