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Struggling Iran also reach Asian Cup knockout rounds

DOHA: Iraq coach Jesus Casas said his team were “close to perfect” in stunning Asian Cup favorites Japan 2-1 on Friday to reach the knockout rounds, where they were joined by rivals Iran. Aymen Hussein scored two first-half headers in front of nearly 40,000 in Doha to consign four-time champions Japan to a first Asian Cup group-stage defeat in 26 matches. It also set Japan on a potential collision course with Son Heung-min’s South Korea in the last 16, assuming they still progress.

Casas said that the first big shock of the tournament was “only one win” but hailed it as “a great day for Iraqi people”. “I think the perfect match doesn’t exist,” said the Spaniard. “It’s impossible to have a perfect match, but we were close to perfect.” Hussein headed Iraq — ranked 63 in the world compared to Japan’s 17 – into the lead in the fifth minute and struck again in first-half injury time.

Iraq endured a nervous finish after Liverpool’s Wataru Endo pulled one back in the third of eight minutes of injury time at the end of the game. “All the players were concentrating on this match and we were all ready for it,” said Hussein, who also scored in a 3-1 win over Indonesia. Iraq won the Asian Cup in 2007 and are dreaming of upsetting the odds all over again.

‘Painful memory’

Also Friday, Indonesia defeated Vietnam 1-0 thanks to a 42nd-minute penalty by Asnawi Mangkualam. It means Indonesia and Japan will battle it out on Wednesday for the second qualification spot from Group D, although finishing third might also be enough. Hajime Moriyasu’s Japan beat Vietnam 4-2 in their opener and went into the Iraq game on the back of a 10-match winning streak in which they scored 43 goals.

Japan beat Spain and Germany to reach the last 16 of the 2022 Qatar World Cup. But they had no answer to the power and aggression of an Iraq side roared on by most of the crowd at Education City Stadium. Hussein headed home for the opening goal when the ball fell to him after Japan goalkeeper Zion Suzuki flapped at a cross.

He notched his second just before half-time, holding off Hiroki Ito to nod home from close range. “The atmosphere was like an away game and conceding early hurt us,” said Moriyasu, but he refused to criticise the 21-year-old Suzuki, who was also shaky against Vietnam. “For him and for the team it will be a painful memory, but I want him to embrace the challenge,” said the coach.

Iran joined Iraq, Australia and hosts and holders Qatar in the last 16 but they made hard work of beating Hong Kong 1-0. On paper the fixture was among the biggest mismatches at the tournament, with Iran ranked 21st in the world to Hong Kong’s 150. Iran, hunting a record-equaling fourth continental crown, dominated possession in front of 36,412 at the Khalifa International Stadium. But Hong Kong — playing at their first Asian Cup in more than 55 years — had opportunities early on, especially when Brazil-born forward Everton Camargo blazed over from inside the box. — AFP

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