January 19 – Iran squeezed past a determined Hong Kong 1-0 to advance to the round of 16 of the Asian Cup with a game to spare in Group C.
There was always a sense of inevitability about the outcome of this match – a three-time champion and powerhouse of the game against the lowest-ranked team in the tournament – and Iran did prevail but just not the way it had been scripted.
Iran often failed to be imposing in a match that did not set the pulses racing with prolonged lulls in play. Hong Kong’s coach Joern Andersen summed it up: “We pushed them, we pressed, we attacked them and a team like Iran didn’t know how to play against us.”
Hong Kong maintained good discipline in the opening exchanges against Iran whose coach Amir Ghalenoei strangely omitted As Roma star Sardar Azmoun from the starting lineup despite making five changes. They did more than simply keep the Iranians at arm’s length and in the 16th minute Everton Camargo had a wonderful opportunity after Rouzbeh Cheshmi’s wayward pass was intercepted, but, having rounded the goalkeeper, he skied his shot.
It was always going to be a matter of keeping it tight for Hong Kong and maintaining focus until the final whistle, but they seemed to unravel when Iran breached their backline.
In the 24th minute, Mehdi Ghaedi exploited space in the box to slot the ball home coolly and so Iran, without too much exertion, were in the lead. The writing had been on the wall after forward Shahriar Moghanlou’s header cannoned off the post minutes earlier.
It seemed only a matter of time before Iran scored a decisive second goal, but instead, Andersen’s team rallied and spurned a second major opportunity, almost gift-wrapped by Iran’s defence following a poor clearance by Milad Mohammad and a last-ditch intervention from Alireza Beiranvand. Chan Siu Kwan completely miscued his attempt.
On the touchline, the Norwegian manager despaired, but at the same time clapped in encouragement. His team were still very much alive and they returned to the dressing room a goal down, the goalkeeper preventing Ghaedi from sneaking in a second goal on the stroke of half-time.
The second half began with chants of ‘We are the Hong Kong boys’ in the stands from the travelling fans, but on the pitch, Iran were in control of the match even if the pace hardly exposed Hong Kong. Ghalenoei reacted with a triple substitution after the hour mark – all of Karim Ansarifard, Saeid Ezatolahi and Mohammad Mohebi coming on to provide their team with more energy.
At least that should have been the plan. Iran remained lethargic and uninspired and it was instructive that it took until the 71st minute for Ramin Rezaeian to provide a moment of danger from a set piece. Ghalenoei then sacrificed star Mehdi Taremi for the more defensive-minded Omid Ebrahimi. Rezaeian should have settled the match for Iran in the 82nd minute but he blasted his shot past the near post.
As the final whistle blew, Andersen bowed his head in disappointment. His team had just fallen short, but in reality, he had much to be proud of – this was a major improvement from the 4-0 hammering they received from Iran in November and his side had run Iran close.
Ghaedi’s goal was about the only highlight of Team Melli’s performance.
With two wins from two, Iran will progress from the group, but they have hardly hit top form and the final group game against the United Arab Emirates should be the first proper test and opportunity to gauge how strong the Iranians are. Ghalenoei has promised that he will try out more players against the United Arab Emirates. Perhaps that will finally ignite Iran’s campaign.
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