Iraq v Australia - FIFA World Cup Asian Qualifier

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

Chelsea: Conte expects warm reception for Mourinho; Terry is fit

LONDON, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 26:  A fan wears a Chelsea scarf with the image of the club's former manager, Jose Mourinho before the Barclays Premier League match between Chelsea and Watford at Stamford Bridge on December 26, 2015 in London, England.  (Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)
Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images
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The managers are meeting the media ahead of this week’s Premier League matches, and many eyes are trained on one specific match-up.

Chelsea and Manchester United meet on Sunday, the first time Jose Mourinho will manage against his old side since his unceremonious exit last winger.

[ USWNT: Holiday has tumor removed ]

Mourinho, of course, led Chelsea to the 2014-15 title only to see a miserable start to the following campaign. He was hired at Manchester United this summer, but Conte thinks Mourinho’s Chelsea laurels have earned him some love from Stamford Bridge.

“I have great respect for Mourinho. He deserves a good reception. He was an important man for Chelsea and wrote part of the club’s story.”

Conte also touched on Paul Pogba‘s decision to head back to Old Trafford. The manager guided the French midfielder during their time at Juventus.

“It was Paul Pogba’s dream was to return to Manchester United. I wish him well, but only after this game.”

Conte said John Terry is available to return for Chelsea, and that could be invaluable against a big, strong forward like United’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic. With the Red Devils having played Thursday, Conte will like his chances a bit more than usual.

Canada vs. U.S. among top-notch CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals

VANCOUVER, CANADA - JUNE 20:  Gershon Koffie #28 of the Vancouver Whitecaps brings the ball up field against Dax McCarty #11 of the New York Red Bulls at B.C. Place on June 20, 2012 in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. (Photo by Jessica Haydahl/Getty Images)
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The bracket is set for the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals, and ensures that at least one MLS vs. Liga MX semifinal will happen next Spring.

No. 1 seed New York Red Bulls will cross the continent to meet No. 8 Vancouver Whitecaps, with the winner moving on to face the victor of Mexico’s Tigres UANL vs. Pumas UNAM.

[ VIDEO: Previewing all 10 PL matches ]

The possibility of an all-Liga MX or all-MLS final still exists, with Pachuca and FC Dallas on opposite sides of the bracket. Arabe Unido gives Panama hope for its first CCL semifinalist, while Saprissa can be Costa Rica’s first semifinalist since 2011.

Of the remaining teams, only Pachuca has won a title in the CCL era (2008-present). Tigres lost in the 2016 final, the only other team to make it that far.

Full schedule
New York Red Bulls (1) vs. Vancouver Whitecaps (8)
Tigres UANL (4) vs. Pumas UNAM (5)
Arabe Unido (2) vs. FC Dallas (7)
Pachuca (3) vs. Saprissa (4)

The first legs will be played in late February, and the bright side to the intra-league quarters will be one MLS side waiting a round before facing a more in-form club playing a traditional season schedule (though that’s an overblown excuse at this point).

Some fans don’t care much for the tournament, while others — myself included — are extremely keen to see an MLS team win the CCL and represent North America in the Club World Cup, where it can get a high profile litmus test in a serious competition (Real Madrid beat Cruz Azul 4-0 in a 2014 semifinal).

Report: USWNT star Holiday has brain tumor removed

Costa Rica v United Staes: Final - 2014 CONCACAF Women's Championship
Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)
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World Cup champion Lauren Holiday has had a brain tumor removed, one month after giving birth.

Holiday’s husband, Jrue Holiday of the New Orleans Pelicans, announced that his pregnant wife was diagnosed with an operable tumor in September, and Lauren Holiday has publicly thanked fans for support while requesting prayers.

[ MORE: UCL Final in United States? ]

The Holidays welcomed their first child earlier this month, and Jrue left the Pelicans preseason to help his wife.

The BBC added this tidbit:

Unbelievably as a three-year-old, she had open-heart surgery to repair a defect and went on to become one of the world’s most respected football players.

Get well soon, Lauren.

WATCH: FC Dallas rocket goal sends Guatemalan rainwater flying off net

TORONTO, ON - MAY 07:  Carlos Lizarazo #22 of FC Dallas looks on during the second half of an MLS soccer game against Toronto FC at BMO Field on May 7, 2016 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.  (Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)
Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images
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Carlos Lizarazo’s ridiculous rocket shook rain off the net in an aesthetically pleasing CONCACAF Champions League goal on Thursday.

The Cruz Azul loanee struck a vicious shot for FC Dallas’ fifth goal, which boosted out of the No. 8 seed for the quarterfinals after a 5-2 win at Suchitepéquez in Guatemala.

[ MORE: PST talks with FCD’s Hedges, Zimmerman ]

Lizarazo, 25, had two goals in 10 appearances for FCD heading into the game, with both coming in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup.