Archrivals have no other foes!
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
Strike force: Iran is banking on the shooting prowess of Alireza Jahanbakhsh.