Arch­ri­vals have no other foes!

Sportstar - - GROUP D - AASHIN PRASAD

Iran and Iraq are likely to progress into the knock­out stages from Group D, un­trou­bled by the likes of Viet­nam and Ye­men.

Group D looks a bit lop­sided strength­wise as Asian heavy­weights Iran and Iraq are likely to progress into the knock­out stages un­trou­bled by the likes of Viet­nam and Ye­men.

Iran has forged its iden­tity in the im­age of its man­ager and shrewd tac­ti­cian Car­los Queiroz as a well­drilled de­fen­sive unit. Since he took over in 2011, Iran has qual­i­fied for back­to­back World Cups. Team Melli, which is cur­rently the No. 1 ranked side in Asia, will be among the favourites to reach the fi­nal in Abu Dhabi on Fe­bru­ary 1. The World Cup in Rus­sia gave fur­ther ev­i­dence of the Per­sian side’s progress un­der Quieroz de­spite the group stage exit. Iran pushed Spain and Por­tu­gal to the brink and was just a goal away from qual­i­fy­ing for the knock­out stages.

Since the 2014 World Cup, Queiroz has built his squad around young tal­ents such as Alireza Ja­han­bakhsh and Sar­dar Az­moun to add an at­tack­ing threat to its de­fen­sive setup. Ja­han­bakhsh, who was signed for a club record deal by Brighton and Hove Al­bion at the end of the World Cup, will be the key player for Iran. Sev­eral mem­bers of the Iran na­tional team have Euro­pean club foot­ball and World Cup ex­pe­ri­ence un­der their belts and they will be keen to help Iran reach new heights, the team hav­ing failed to get past the quar­ter­fi­nal mark in its last three at­tempts.

Iraq, how­ever, nei­ther has sim­i­lar re­sources to draw upon nor the sta­bil­ity of lead­er­ship. Srecko Katenac was ap­pointed the coach only in Septem­ber on a three­year con­tract and has the im­me­di­ate task of get­ting the best out of his young squad at the Asian Cup.

The 2013 AFC U­22 cham­pi­onship­win­ning group com­pris­ing Mahdi Kamil, Hu­mam Tariq, Ah­mad Ibrahim and Mo­han­nad Ab­dulRa­heem form the spine of the side. The stage is also set for the ex­cit­ing 1■­year­old striker Mo­hammed Da­wood to be­come Iraq’s sur­prise weapon in the Gulf. Da­wood was named the player of the tour­na­ment in the AFC U­16 cham­pi­onships in 2016 in In­dia when his six goals shot Iraq to its maiden ti­tle.

Af­ter a 4­0 ham­mer­ing at the hands of Ar­gentina in a friendly in Oc­to­ber, Iraq man­aged re­spectable draws against Saudi Ara­bia and Bo­livia.

Friendlies sched­uled against China PR and Pales­tine will of­fer Katenac fur­ther in­di­ca­tions of where his men stand be­fore the start of the tour­na­ment. He will be a re­lieved man to know that his side will start the group stages against the less­fan­cied Viet­nam and Ye­men be­fore the mar­quee fix­ture against arch­ri­val Iran.

While Viet­nam might lack the ex­pe­ri­ence of play­ing high­level in­ter­na­tional tour­na­ments, there has been more aware­ness of foot­ball in the coun­try since South Korea’s Park Hang­seo took charge of the na­tional and the U­23 sides last year. Park, who was as­sis­tant to Guss Hid­dink in South Korea’s

GETTY IMAGES

Strike force: Iran is bank­ing on the shoot­ing prow­ess of Alireza Ja­han­bakhsh.

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