World Cup Qualifying, Asia: The divergent Middle Eastern fortunes of Australia, South Korea

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There are worse things than being a one-trick pony, particularly if you’re an absolute master at that trick. For Australia, that one trick is their dominance in the air, a trait that saw them take Asia by storm during the last World Cup qualifying cycle. The rest of the continent, seemingly unprepared for such aesthetics eschewing pragmatism, watched as the likes of Joshua Kennedy and Tim Cahill head Australia to the top of the region.

In the years that followed the Aussies’ fist AFC qualifying campaign, Asia seemed to adjust. Japan won the continental title in 2011, and the Australians went without a win in the first three matches of fourth (final) round World Cup Qualifying. Coming off a surprise loss in Jordan, the Socceroos’ Tuesday match with Iraq had a must win feel to it.

Despite that urgency, Australia fell behind in the 72nd minute, an Alaa Abdul-Zahra goal giving Iraq a 1-0 lead. That’s when Australia’s one trick came through. Tim Cahill pulled back Iraq’s lead with an 80th minute header, while Archie Thompson, experiencing an unlikely international revival, put home an 84th minute winner.

Often people try to defend Australia as been more than a team reliant on crosses and set pieces – as if being a one-trick pony is a bad think within world soccer. When you survey the array of soccer-playing nations, you see most don’t even have one trick to lean on. Enviably, Australia has a reliable tactic in reserve.

It was a crushing loss for Iraq, who sit bottom of Asia’s Group B with a 0-2-2 record that fails to reflect their quality. Banned by FIFA from playing matches at home, the Iraqis are left wondering if results like today’s would occur if their home matches weren’t relocated to Qatar. Had the Iraqis held on, they’d be sitting in Australia’s spot: Second place, five points behind Japan, holding the inside track on a place at Brazil 2014.

Swagger-less favorites

In Asia’s other group, South Korea still has one of those inside tracks, even if they’ll be disappointed with Tuesday’s performance in Tehran. Though their hosts gave the Koreans every chance to claim full points, Group A’s leaders left Iran empty-handed.

The Iranians played cautiously over the match’s first act before showing some ambition as halftime approached. Korea only threatened from dead balls but, thanks to the service of Ki Sung-Yeung, still looked looked more likely to score, heading against the crossbar twice before break.

When Iran went a man down early in the second (Masoud Shojaei seeing red in the 56th minute), the Koreans were put on track for three, though it was the Iranians’ set piece magic that ultimately gave Carlos Quieroz’s team full points. A 76th minute ball served from the right met with a lazy clearance, the resulting ball allowing captain Javad Nekonam to blast home the game’s only goal.

Jung Sung-Ryong’s reaction summed up South Korea’s day. The goalkeeper was given no chance to stop the 17-yard blast into the left of his net. As the Nekonam’s ball bent the net, Jung’s head swung from his goal, back to Nekonam, then into space as he took a moment to process what had happened. The Iranians ran toward the crowd, piling on their captain as he ran down the field’s encircling track, leaving the Koreans to think back on a match they never seized, even after they were awarded a numerical advantage.

At full time, Iran’s celebrations highlighted the opportunity South Korea had lost. As Quieroz came down from the stands (where he had been sent for being a general nuisance all night), his players formed a mob on the field, with one of the best crowds of the international break celebrating the upset of a regional power.

Korea never played like the favorite. They never took advantage of what could have been a psychological edge. Even after going up a man, they played the match on Iran’s terms.

The only hint the match gave of Korea’s stature was Iran’s opening tactics – a cautious approach that sought to pressure Korea, but only after they’d been baiting to moving down the flanks. Compact and patient, Iran waited out the match’s first half hour despite being the home side. Come the 30-minute mark, it was impossible to tell Korea was a perpetual World Cup qualifier visiting a team hoping to reestablish some international prestige.

AFC World Cup Qualifying – Standings

Group A

Team Pld W D L GF GA GD Pts
South Korea 4 2 1 1 9 4 +5 7
Iran 4 2 1 1 2 1 +1 7
Uzbekistan 4 1 2 1 4 4 0 5
Qatar 4 1 1 2 2 5 −3 4
Lebanon 4 1 1 2 2 5 −3 4

Tuesday results

Qatar 0, Uzbekistan 1
Iran 1, South Korea 0

Group B

Team Pld W D L GF GA GD Pts
Japan 4 3 1 0 11 1 +10 10
Australia 4 1 2 1 4 4 0 5
Oman 4 1 2 1 3 5 −2 5
Jordan 4 1 1 2 4 10 −6 4
Iraq 4 0 2 2 3 5 −2 2

Tuesday results

Oman 2, Jordan 1
Iraq 1, Australia 2

French league terminates goal-line technology contract

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PARIS (AP) The French football league has terminated the contract with its goal-line technology provider after a series of glitches.

The LFP had already suspended the use of GoalControl, the German system that was deployed at the 2014 World Cup.

According to L’Equipe newspaper, the league will launch a tender in February to find a new provider of the technology that determines whether the ball crossed the line.

[ MORE: Bristol City 2-3 (3-5 agg.) Man City ]

In recent months, the French league had repeatedly expressed its discontent with GoalControl.

Goal-line technology entered soccer after a goal was wrongly disallowed at the 2010 World Cup.

FIFA is already focused on fast-tracking the next phase of technology – video assistant referees – for the World Cup in June.

Goal-line technology and VAR were provided by Hawk-Eye at the Confederations Cup last year.

Bristol City’s Johnson: “They certainly have heard of us now”

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The Premier League world may see Bristol City next season, but it seems its manager has the personality to arrive on the top flight whether or not his Robins earn promotion this season.

Johnson, 36, earned plenty of plaudits after leading his Championship club to the League Cup semifinals, famously defeated Manchester United in the quarters.

[ MORE: Bristol City 2-3 (3-5 agg.) Man City ]

Before that, Bristol beat Premier League sides Crystal Palace, Stoke City, and Watford. The Robins beat third tier Plymouth Argyle 5-0 in the first round.

Johnson was beaming after the Robins took Man City to the edge, closing to within a goal of extra time before Kevin De Bruyne‘s stoppage time number ended the tie 5-3 on aggregate.

“Absolutely I’m proud. It’s not just tonight but over the course of the season, particularly the cup run. It was a fantastic occasion, I’m sorry we couldn’t get the win but we played against the best side that I have ever seen live. They have so many good individuals.

“We kept going and it’s taken two injury-time goals to beat us. They certainly have [heard of us] now…everybody knows what we’re about. It’s been great.”

Bristol City is in the Championship’s fifth place, bidding for its first top flight campaign since 1980. Johnson should be a hot prospect to earn a shot in the Premier League should the Robins not make the jump.

League Cup semifinal preview: Arsenal vs. Chelsea

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  • Chelsea has won 4-of-7 League Cup matches vs. Arsenal
  • Arsenal leads all-time series 74W-58D-62L
  • Clubs have drawn four times this season

Hardware hopes are on the line when Chelsea hits the Emirates Stadium for a League Cup semifinal second leg with Arsenal on Wednesday.

The sides drew 0-0 at Stamford Bridge, giving Chelsea the advantage of knowing a scoring draw would do the trick and set up a date with Manchester City at Wembley on Feb. 25, though Arsenal has home field advantage in pursuit of a win.

[ MORE: Bristol City 2-3 (3-5 agg.) Man City ]

Henrikh Mkhitaryan may debut for Arsenal, though the club released an interesting note on Tuesday: He’ll wear No. 7 in most competitions, but will have to use a different number in the Europa League because Alexis Sanchez wore it to start the tournament.

Chelsea’s Antonio Conte won’t have Alvaro Morata (back) and Cesc Fabregas for the match, though Andreas Christensen will be available for selection.

The clubs are no strangers to each other in big non-PL spots, squaring off in this season’s Community Shield (Arsenal won in penalty kicks) and last season’s FA Cup Final (Arsenal won).

Nothing has separated the sides on the field aside from those penalty kicks at Wembley Stadium, as Arsenal and Chelsea have drawn 1-1, 0-0, 2-2, and 0-0 since August.

What they’re saying

Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger on Henrikh Mkhitaryan“He can play in different positions, but personally I see him first in a wide position, but I’m thinking about him a possibility to play through the middle. You are certain in our job of nothing, that’s absolutely sure. But you believe and I believe he has the qualities to do well, is a team player and our game is based on team attitude and movement and I think he can absorb the quantity of movement in our team.”

Chelsea’s Conte on the lineup: “Every game is different, you change the quality of your opponent and you must be intelligent enough to understand if you should continue with the same players or make some changes.”

Javier Mascherano leaving Barcelona after 8 seasons

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BARCELONA, Spain (AP) Barcelona says defender Javier Mascherano is leaving the club after eight seasons.

Barcelona says there will be a farewell ceremony on Wednesday with Mascherano, club president Josep Bartomeu and the rest of the squad.

[ MORE: Man City to buy $86m CB ]

The 33-year-old Argentina international will say goodbye to the fans before Thursday’s game against Espanyol at Camp Nou in the Copa del Rey. He is reportedly going to play in China.

Mascherano, who also played as a defensive midfielder, arrived in Barcelona in 2010 from Liverpool and helped the Catalan club win 18 titles. He has made 334 appearances with Barcelona, but recently hadn’t been playing much.

The club earlier this month signed Colombia international Yerry Mina to boost its defense.

More AP Spanish soccer coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/LaLiga