by Paul Giblin MOSCOW Russia
(Xinhua) -- The 2014 World Cup saw Asian teams fail to
win a single game and after just two days of the 2018 World Cup, observers must
be starting to wonder if something similar might happen in 2018.
World Cup could hardly have got off to a better off-field start with the news
that the number of Asian representatives will increase from 5 (including
Australia) in 2018 to 8 in 2026.
However, on the pitch it was a different matter as Saudi Arabia were thrashed
5-0 in the opening game by hosts Russia and although the Russians were clearly
inspired by a passionate home crowd, the Saudi display was tepid to say the
least and even prompted Chairman of the Saudi General Sports Authority, Turki
al-Sheikh to publicly accuse the players of "giving just 5 percent effort".
Things changed on Friday when Iran, who only conceded 5 goals in 18
qualifying games and drew against Argentina and Nigeria in the 2014 World Cup,
again showed they are a tough side to beat, had a stroke of fortune when an
injury time own goal gave them a 1-0 win against Morocco.
That goal meant Carlos Queiroz’s men become the first Asian side to win a
game in the World Cup finals since Japan beat Denmark in a group match in South
Africa on June 24th 2010, and it sparked off wild celebrations among the Iranian
supporters in Saint Petersburg.
What made the win all the more amazing was that it came at the end of a
second half where no Iranian player managed a shot on target and in truth,
although tough to beat, Iran did little to show they are capable of reaching the
last 16 ahead of their other group rivals, Spain or Portugal.
The other Asian sides are also going to have to dig deep if they are to make
it into the last 16: South Korea, who have perhaps the best Asian player in the
tournament in Son Hueng-Min, have a tough group including current World
Champions, Germany, Mexico and the tough-to-beat Sweden.
Japan meanwhile are in Group H and have to contend with the flair of
Colombia, a Senegal side that is going to focus on attack and Poland, who have
Bayern Munich striker Robert Lewandowski as their main man.
Japan and South Korea have hardly inspired confidence in their preparations
for Russia with the Japanese beaten 2-0 by both Switzerland and Ghana (who
failed to qualify for the tournament), before defeating Paraguay, arguably the
weakest side in South America on June 12th.
South Korea meanwhile may have defeated Honduras 2-0, but then lost 3-1 to
Bosnia and Herzegovina, before a 0-0 draw against Bolivia (neither of whom will
be in Russia) and a 2-0 defeat to Senegal, which could be a warning for what
Japan might expect against the Africans.
The fifth ‘Asian’ qualifier, Australia will have to battle it out against
France, Denmark and Peru and don’t look to have the quality to progress from
Group C (and let’s be honest Australia is Oceania anyhow).
So although Iran have restored some Asian pride after 8 long years, there is
still a real chance that just as in 2014, the only Asian representatives in the
last 16 of the tournament will be supporters in the stands.
Moroccan’s own goal brings Iran second
victory in World Cup history
SAINT PETERSBURG Russia (Xinhua) --
Iran won the second victory in its World Cup history here on
Friday evening in a dramatic way, after Moroccan substitute Aziz Bouhaddouz
headed the ball into his own net.
In what seemed to be one of only a few decent deliveries just one minute
before conclusion of the match, Iran’s Ehsan Haji Safi curled a last-moment
free-kick, only to be met by the Moroccan forward, who dashed across to send the
ball right into the gate.
That dreadful mistake, to the astonishment of more than 62,500 audiences in
Saint Petersburg Stadium, put a seal on the first match in Group B, as well as
Morocco’s unbeaten record of 18 games.
It also sent Iran, which reached consecutive World Cups only for first time,
one step closer to the knockout stage that they had never been to before.
In the two team’s first encounter on the World Cup stage, the Atlas Lions
enjoyed a comfortable start, dominating the pitch and controlling the tempo,
while Iranian goalkeeper Ali Beiranvand impressed spectators with his heroic
saves amid scramble.
Iran, on the other hand, gradually got better after the first 20 minutes.
The best chance for them came several minutes before the break, when Sardar
Azmoun fired close to scoring after dribbling past defenders.
The second half saw numerous stoppages of injuries and bickers.
A highlight came on the 79th minute, when Moroccan midfielder Hakim Ziyach
received the ball from Younes Belhanda and hit a stinging effort. But Beiranvand
was brisk enough to catch it.
Morocco, who have waited for 20 years to be qualified for the World Cup
again, will be facing a grim situation, against the reigning European champion
Portugal and 2010 World Cup winner Spain in the next two group matches.