Winners and losers from the 2019 Asian Cup group stage
The group stage of the 2019 Asian Cup has come to a close. In the first 24-team edition of the tournament, we've seen our fair share of stupendous showings and brilliant performances. We've also seen some surprise exits and massive letdowns.
But who were the best (and the worst) of the pack? Here are five winners and four losers from the 2019 Asian Cup group stage.
Winner: Almoez Ali
Everyone's current pick for Player of the Tournament and it's not even close. Almoez Ali was nothing short of world-class in the group stage. The 22-year old scored seven goals in just three games, the most goals scored in a single Asian Cup group stage. His four goals against North Korea made him just the fifth player to score a poker in an Asian Cup game, and his double against Saudi Arabia guaranteed Qatar top spot in Group E. Only three other players (Behtash Fariba (7), Choi Soon-ho (7), and Ali Daei (8)) have scored seven or more goals in a single edition of the competition. With Qatar guaranteed at least one more game, Almoez Ali looks likely to surpass Daei's 23-year record.
Less than two years removed from their miraculous run through 2018 World Cup qualifiers, Syria was a dark horse to win the 2019 Asian Cup. Unfortunately, their tournament couldn't have gone any worse. The Syrians opened their campaign with a bland 0-0 draw with Palestine, a team that had never kept a clean sheet or won a point in the competition. They followed that up with a deflated 2-0 loss to Jordan before dropping a 3-2 decision to Australia thanks to a 93rd minute Tom Rogic winner. Syria looked lost and lacked creativity, which probably had to do with the absence of captain and play-maker Firas Al-Khatib. Omar Al-Somah and Omar Khribin, the side's two most lethal attacking threats, were limited to just one goal from open play. Syria's point total of one is the lowest they've ever registered in six Asian Cup appearances.
With the reigning continental champions Australia and 2018 World Cup nearlies Syria in their group, you'd be forgiven for thinking that Jordan would not finish in Group B's top two. Factoring in the shock absence of Hamza Al-Dardour, Jordan's leading scorer at the 2015 Asian Cup, and their chances at surviving the group stage were in serious doubt. But the Chivalrous proved to be a tougher cookie to crack than expected. They opened their tournament with a 1-0 victory over Australia and followed it up with a 2-0 win over Syria. They were the first team to clinch a knockout round spot, and their three clean sheets makes them one of only four sides to have gone through the 2019 group stage without conceding a goal. Captain Amer Shafi is mainly to thank for that, with his consistent performances earning him Goalkeeper of the Tournament shouts. With Vietnam awaiting them in the round of 16, Jordan look forward to earning their first ever knockout round win.
Admittedly, it's pretty harsh to call India a loser. Their 4-1 win over Thailand was their first victory in the competition since 1964, and their goal differential of zero shows that they've greatly improved from their last Asian Cup appearance (2011, when they conceded 13 goals and had a goal differential of -10). That said, you can't help but blame India for their failure to qualify to the knockout rounds. A 4-1 victory set them up perfectly for at least a top third-place spot, but back-to-back defeats to the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain erased all of the good they did in their opener. Looking back, one starts to wonder whether their 4-1 victory was down to a masterclass on their part or a disasterclass on Thailand's. India finished with the highest point total out of any fourth-place side, so maybe their elimination comes down to how even Group A was, in terms of quality, compared to the other groups. That said, India only have themselves to blame for letting their spot in the knockout rounds slip away.
Winner: Ashkan Dejagah
Most people would be surprised to hear that Ashkan Dejagah is still a professional footballer, let alone a member of Iran's national team. His name is usually the subject of "Where are they now? pieces, with his 2007-2012 Wolfsburg and 2012-2014 Fulham stints now just a far-off memory. But despite the drop his club career has experienced, Dejagah has proven that he can still play a vital role with Team Melli. The 32-year old produced a series of phenomenal performances in the 2019 Asian Cup group stage. His experience proved helpful to Iran's core, many of whom are in their mid-20s. He's been key to Iran's attack, with his advanced midfield position allowing him to contribute to Team Melli's offence. He's been particularly deadly from set-pieces and he's already scored from a free kick. Ashkan Dejagah may not be the most glamorous name on Iran's teamsheet, but he's had as big of a role in Iran's performances as his teammates.
Loser: North Korea
Does North Korea deserve a spot on the loser's list? On the one hand, they were expected to be bad. On the other hand, I don't think they were expected to be THIS bad. In the nine years since their 2010 World Cup appearance, the East Asian outfit has gradually gotten worse on the continental stage. In the 2011 Asian Cup, they went 0-1-2 (wins-draws-losses) with zero goals scored and two goals conceded. Four years later, they went 0-0-3 with two goals scored and seven goals conceded. Now, in their third-straight appearance in the tournament, the North Koreans again went 0-0-3, this time with just one goal scored and 14 goals conceded. That's the joint-most goals a team has conceded in a single Asian Cup group stage in the 21st century (along with Uzbekistan in 2000). Their goal differential of -13 is also the second-worst worst in tournament history (bested only by Bangladesh's -15 goal differential in 1980). The North Koreans were outclassed in all three of their group games, and they conceded an average of 4.67 goals per match. As for their only goal, it came off of a goalkeeper error, so you can't really give them credit for it. North Korea put in one of the worst showings in Asian Cup history, and they somehow under-performed on expectations when they had none to begin with.
It's not often that a team fires their coach in the midst of a major international tournament. It's even less often that that team finds success following that change. The odds were Thailand's favour, though, After an abysmal 4-1 opening loss to India, coach Milovan Rajevac was relieved of his national team duties. He had only been with the War Elephants since April 2017, but the defeat was embarrassing enough to lose him his job. Thailand appointed Sirisak Yodyardthai as caretaker and immediately saw their fortunes change. He coached them to a 1-0 win over Bahrain and a 1-1 draw with the hosting United Arab Emirates. That was good enough for four points and second in the Group A table. Given how similar the Group A teams are to one another, many had written Thailand off following their 4-1 defeat. The War Elephants proved that you can't judge these competitions too early, and with China their next opponent in the round of 16, we could see Thailand go a lot farther than we first expected.
Loser: Lee Seung-woo
Lee Seung-woo is a loser not for anything he's done, but rather for what his coach hasn't done. The 21-year old is one of the top U-21 players in East Asian football. He spent five years in Barcelona's famous La Masia, where he developed a creative skill set far ahead most players his age. He was recognized as the Asian Young Footballer of the Year in 2017 and won the Asian Games with South Korea in 2018. Considering all of this, as well as the fact that Son Heung-min, the national team's best player who also happens to play a similar role as Lee, would be absent from the side's first two games, Lee Seung-woo was expected to showcase his talents on a major stage. Unfortunately, head coach Paulo Bento benched him in all three games, not once bringing him on as a sub or giving him a start. Bento hasn't utilized the talent in any of his tactics, and with Son Heung-min back, it's likely Lee Seung-woo won't be used in a major role as some have speculated. This is especially a problem for Lee Seung-woo on the club stage. Despite playing for a Serie B side in Hellas Verona, the South Korean has seen limited action. He only recently started to build a repertoire for himself at the club, and given how quickly players fighting for a spot can win or lose their place in a team, putting his spot with Hellas Verona at risk for what now looks like zero minutes at the Asian Cup seems like a bad move. You have to wonder what Bento was thinking with this decision.
Winner: Mohanad Ali
Relatively unknown going into the 2019 Asian Cup, Mohanad Ali has burst onto the global football scene with a world-class group stage. The 18-year old has been Iraq's most lethal offensive threat, with two goals to his. Ali's best highlight came in Iraq's 3-0 win over Yemen, when he dribbled around Yemen's mesmerized defence to score Iraq's opening goal. His intelligent play-making skills and creative vision terrorized Vietnam and Yemen, and even caused Iran's top-class back-line a scare. He is one of the most exciting talents to emerge from Iraq in quite a while, and his play has garnered European interest from the likes Rangers and Borussia Dortmund. He's scored eight goals in just 18 international matches, and early glances suggest that he could be to the new generation what Younis Mahmoud was to the old.
Do you agree with my selections? Which other players/teams do you think were winners/losers in the 2019 Asian Cup group stage? Let me know in the comments and on social media!