Ashkan Dejagah

2015 Asian Cup preview: Japan shooting for fourth title in five tournaments

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The 2015 Asian Cup, the 16th edition of the Asian Football Confederation’s (AFC) quadrennial international tournament, kicks off in Australia this Friday, January 9. Winners of this month’s Asian Cup will represent the AFC at the 2017 Confederations Cup, the tune-up tournament a year ahead of the 2018 World Cup, in Russia.

Japan, the most prolific winners of the Asian Cup (four times, all within the last six tournaments), are once again favorites to be crowned champions. Other past Asian Cup winners include South Korea (twice), Isreal, Iran (three times), Kuwait, Saudi Arabia (three times) and Iraq.

The final will be played on Saturday, January 31 at 3:30 am ET.

Asian soccer is unquestionably on the rise, just as it is here in the United States, so this year’s tournament is as good of a time as any to take the plunge and begin really familiarizing yourself with players who have long since been playing for a number of Europe’s biggest clubs.

HOST CITIES, VENUES, SCHEDULE

Stadium Australia — Sydney — 84,000 capacity
Hunter Stadium — Newcastle — 33,000 capacity
Suncorp Stadium — Brisbane — 52,500 capacity
GIO Canberra Stadium — Canberra — 25,000 capacity
AAMI Park — Melbourne — 30,000 capacity

Full schedule of group stage fixtures

GROUP A

source: Getty ImagesAustralia
Players to watch: F – Tim Cahill (right), New York Red Bulls; M – Mile Jedinak, Crystal Palace; M – Mark Bresciano, Al-Gharafa
Prediction: Group A runners-up after losing South Korea, and defeating Oman and Kuwait. Decent upside to reach the semis as hosts.

 

Oman
Players to watch: GK – Ali Al-Habsi, Wigan Athletic; F – Abdulaziz Al-Muqbali, Fanja; F – Amad Al-Hosni, Saham
Prediction: Third place, Group A. They’ll not be blown out in any of their group games and they’re get their day in the sun in the group stage finale against Kuwait.

 

source: Getty ImagesSouth Korea
Coach: Uli Stielike
Players to watch: M – Son Heung-min (left), Bayer Leverkusen; M – Ki Sung-yueng, Sunderland; M – Lee Chung-yong, Botlon Wanderers
Prediction: Group A winners after defeating Australia and Oman, and drawing Kuwait. Likely semifinalists with a date against a weak Group B’s runner-up in the quarters.

 

Kuwait
Players to watch: F – Bader Al-Mutawa, Qadsia; D – Musaed Neda, Al-Oruba; GK – Nawaf Al Khaldi, Qadsia
Prediction: Fourth place, Group A. A fairly young Kuwaiti team struggles this time around, but gains valuable experience in the process.


GROUP B

source: APUzbekistan
Players to watch: M – Server Djeparov (right), Seongnam; D- Vitaliy Denisov, Lokomotiv Moscow; M – Timur Kapadze, Lokomotiv Tashkent
Prediction: Group B winners. Not the toughest group in the world, and finishing top means avoiding South Korea in the quarterfinals. That should be all the motivation the Uzbeks need.

 

Saudi Arabia
Players to watch: F – Nasser Al-Shamrani, Al-Hilal; D – Osama Hawsawi, Al-Ahli; M – Saud Kariri, Al-Hilali
Prediction: Third place, Group B. A relatively inexperienced Saudi squad, compared to triumphant years gone by. Their opener vs. China could decide all.

 

source: Getty ImagesChina
Players to watch: M – Zheng Zhi (right, at front), Guangzhou Evergrande; D- Zhang Linpeng, Guangzhou Evergrande; F – Yang Xu, Changchun Yatai
Prediction: Group B runners-up. Three points in the opener vs. Saudi Arabia goes a long way to easing Chinese worries. A loss and they’re in trouble.

 

North Korea
Players to watch: F – Pak Kwang-ryong, Vaduz; M – Jong Il-gwan, Rimyongsu; D- Cha Jong-hyok, Wil 1900
Prediction: Fourth place, Group B.


GROUP C

source: Getty ImagesIran
Coach: Carlos Queiroz
Players to watch: M – Javad Nekounam (right), Osasuna; M – Ashkan Dejagah, Al-Arabi; F – Sardar Azmoun, Rubin Kazan
Prediction: Winners, Group C. Less than a semifinals appearance and they’ll be disappointed, and rightly so.

 

Qatar
Players to watch:
 M – Khalfan Ibrahim, Al Sadd; D – Bilal Mohammed, Al-Gharafa; M – Magid Mohamed, El Jaish
Prediction: Fourth place, Group C.

 

source: Getty ImagesUnited Arab Emirates
Players to watch: F – Ali Mabkhout, Al-Jazira; M – Omar Abdulrahman, Al-Ain; F – Ahmed Khalil, Al-Ahli
Prediction: Runners-up, Group C. UAE could handle their business and be through after games one and two before they have to bother with Iran. Then top spot in the group is on the line to see who avoids Japan.

 

Bahrain
Players to watch: M – Mohamed Salmeen, Al-Muharraq; M – Faouzi Aaish, Al-Sailiya; F – Ismail Abdul-Latif, Al-Muharraq
Prediction: Third place, Group C. The first two games present extremely tough challenges, but a winnable game in third place offers a chance to leave Australia with a good taste in their mouth.


GROUP D

source: Getty ImagesJapan
Coach: Javier Aguirre
Players to watch: M – Shinji Kagawa (right), Borussia Dortmund; F – Keisuke Honda, AC Milan; F – Shinji Okazaki, Mainz
Prediction: Group D winners. Anything other than a finals appearance will be deemed a disappointment, if not being crowned champions once again. The attacking talent is there for a another trophy, but as we saw at the World Cup last summer, the defense is more than a bit shaky.

 

Jordan
Coach: Ray Wilkins
Players to watch: F – Abdallah Deeb, Al-Riffa; GK – Amer Shafi, Al-Wehdat; M – Saeed Murjan, Al-Ramtha
Prediction: Third place, Group D.

 

source: Getty ImagesIraq
Players to watch: F – Younis Mahmoud, unattached; D – Ali Adnan, Rizespor; Humam Tariq (left), Al Dahfra; F – Justin Meram, Columbus Crew
Prediction: Group D runners-up. The Iraqis have moved on from the golden group that won the 2007 tournament and replaced big names with rising youngsters sprinkled throughout Europe. Tariq, 18, is a future star.

 

Palestine
Players to watch: F – Ashraf Nu’man, Al-Faisaly; M – Khader Yousef, Taraji Wadi Al-Nes; Hussam Abu Saleh, Hilal Al-Quds
Prediction: Fourth place, Group D.

At halftime: Messi with two, one a wonder; Dzeko scores –FOLLOW LIVE

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Well it’s been a lively start to Wednesday, as some of the world’s best made the score sheet early. As it stands, Iran will not only pick up their first ever loss to Bosnia and Herzegovina — giving BNH its first World Cup win — but miss the knockout round due a draw between Argentina and Nigeria.

Messi, my goodness.

[ MORE Soccerly: Follow Nigeria-Argentina | Iran-Bosnia and Herzegovina ]

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Argentina 1-1 Nigeria

Goals: 

3′ – Lionel Messi officially makes Group F’s second spot open for competition as he buries a rebound into the upper part of the net. Argentina, 1-0

4′ – Ahmed Musa wastes no time responding, as the 21-year-old CSKA Moscow player walks in from the left of goal to bury one. 1-1.

45+1′ – There’s only one Lionel Messi. A gorgeous, bending free kick past the wall from 25 out restores Argentina’s lead and Iran’s hope.

Key moments:

16′ – If Nigeria get through, someone needs to buy Vincent Enyeama’s meals for the rest of the tournament. The Nigerian keeper is perhaps the only reason outside of Musa’s goal that the nation may still go through.

31′ – Argentina continues to pressure as it’s done all day but Rojo heads wide off a strong cross.

Lineups

Nigeria: Enyeama, Yobo, Ambrose, Musa, Odemwingie, Emenike, Mikel, Oshaniwa, Onazi, Babatunde, Omeruo

Argentina: Romero, Garay, Zabaleta, Gago, Di Maria, Higuain, Messi, Mascherano, Rojo, Fernandez, Aguero

 

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Iran 0-1 Bosnia and Herzegovina

Goals: 

23′ – Edin Dzeko gets BNH on the board with a low, cross-body shot from the top of the 18. It’s a gorgeous goal from the Manchester City man, and puts Iran in a bad spot. Bosnia and Herzegovina, 1-0.

Key moments:

2′ – Iran probably deserved a penalty kick for an awkward takedown of Ashkan Dejagah in the box.

24′ – And Iran nearly counters! A Shojaei shot from just beyond the penalty spot rattles off the bottom of the bar, and the picture perfect rebound is butchered.

Lineups

Iran: Haghighi, Haji Safi, Hosseini, Sadeghi, Shojaei, Timotian, Montarezi, Ghoochannejad, Pooladi, Nekounam, Dejagah

Bosnia and Herzegovina: Begovic, Vrsajevic, Kolasinac, Hadzic, Sunjic, Spahic, Besic, Pjanic, Ibisevic, Dzeko, Susic

Lionel Messi gives Argentina a last minute victory over Iran

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After holding Argentina to a dull draw in the first half, then playing out of their minds in the second half, Iran will be devastated to have left Belo Horizonte without a point. The magical Messi came through for Argentina once more, scoring in injury time to give his side their second win.

The first half of Argentina – Iran was rather dull. Iran defender Jalal Hosseini put two headers off target, while the supposed firepower of the albiceleste managed just two shots on target. Despite Alejandro Sabella returning to Argentina’s favored 4-3-3 formation, the combined powers of  Sergio Agüero, Gonzalo Higuaín, Ángel di María and yes, even Lionel Messi could not break through the iron-clad Iran defense.

After the restart, Iran started to come out of their shells – and managed to give Argentina a couple of decent scares.

In the 52nd minute, Iran finally broke through with a fantastic chance. There was a good chance Sergio Romero might have been caught napping, as the Argentina goalkeeper had little to do throughout the match, but his reflexive save kept out a sharp shot from Reza Ghoochannejhad.

Shortly thereafter, the referee waved away Ashkan Dejagah’s appeals for a penalty. He tangled with Pablo Zabaleta on the edge of the area, and likely had a good case – Argentina were lucky to get away with that one.

In the 67th minute, Dejagah came knocking once again. Romero was forced to fingertip his strike from distance over the bar, and Argentina breathed once more.

Messi had a great chance to put his chance ahead, but his free kick ruffled the side netting. Moments later, Ángel di María tried his luck, but Alireza Haghighi was there to stifle the shot. Finally, with fifteen minutes left to play, Sabella elected to make changes, bringing on Rodrigo Palacio and Ezequiel Lavezzi for Sergio Agüero and Gonzalo Higuaín.

Yet Argentina still couldn’t break through. Indeed it looked like the best chance of the final minutes would fall to Iran, with Ghoochannejhad breaking free to go one on one with Romero. His shot was beaten away by Romero, however.

Then, in the game’s dying minutes, Messi performed a moment of magic once more. The forward streaked down the right only to cut inside, jigging past Ghoochannejhad as he did so. With his left foot, he sliced a perfect, curving shot into the far top corner of the net, just out of reach of a stretching Haghighi.

LINEUPS

Argentina: Romero; Zabaleta, Garay; Fede Fernández, Rojo; Gago, Mascherano, Di María (Biglia 90); Messi, Higuaín (Palacio 77), Agüero (Lavezzi 77)

Iran: Haghighi, Hosseini, Sadeghi, Montazeri, Pooladi, Shojaei (Heydari 77), Nekounam, Teymourian, Dejagah (Jahanbakhsh 85), Ghoochannejhad, Hajsafi (Haghighi 88)

At halftime: Goalless between Argentina and Iran…FOLLOW LIVE

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As expected, Iran spent much of the first half with ten men packed behind the ball. Argentina were unable to weave their way through such tight defending, and despite having the majority of possession, could only register two shots on target.

FOLLOW LIVE: Soccerly’s real-time match center

Goals

Zero.

Other key moments

4′: Iran waste a huge chance to take a surprise lead when Jalal Hosseini puts his header well wide

13′: Alireza Haghighi makes the first save of the game, blocking a strike from Gonzalo Higuaín

18′: The referee helping out Argentina by stealing the ball from an Iran player and gifting it to a blue-and-white shirt turns out to be the most exciting moment thus far

22′: Haghighi palms away a shot from Sergio Agüero

37′: A free kick from Lionel Messi falls kindly for Ezequiel Garay, but he puts his header over the bar

42′: Hosseini’s header from Ashkan Dejagah’s corner goes high, in a near-replica of Iran’s first chance of the game

LINEUPS

Argentina : Romero; Zabaleta, Garay; Fede Fernández, Rojo; Gago, Mascherano, Di María; Messi, Higuaín, Agüero

Iran: Haghighi, Hosseini, Sadeghi, Montazeri, Pooladi, Shojaei, Nekounam, Teymourian, Dejagah, Ghoochannejhad, Hajsafi

Question for the second half

What can Argentina do to break through the mass of Iran shirts huddled in front of goal?
The patient buildup has yet to work for Alejandro Sabella’s side. Of course, they’re likely fine conserving energy and playing out a draw, but that’s not the Argentina we’ve all been hoping for. Sabella could bring on some fresh legs – Gonzalo Higuaín is looking a bit ragged and may be carrying an injury, but Ezequiel Lavezzi is available to take his place – in an attempt to change up both the tempo and the dynamic.

Game on: Lineups and more as Nigeria, Iran tangle in Group F

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The match between Nigeria and Iran may be less anticipated than other matches, but it doesn’t change the drama of the World Cup, does it? Kicks off at 3pm ET;

[ MORE, PreviewsIran | Nigeria | Group F ]
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Starting lineups

Iran: Haghighi, Heydari, Haji Safi, Hosseini, Sadeghi, Nekounam, Timotian, Montazeri, Ghoochannejad, Dejagah, Pooladi

Nigeria: Enyeama; Ambrose, Omeruo, Oboabona Oshaniwa; Onazi, Mikel; Musa, Azeez, Moses; Emenike

Talking points

1. Nigeria can’t afford to be worrying about Argentina and Bosnia & Herzegovina? Head coach Stephen Keshi needs these three points, and his team cannot take them for granted.

“For the Iran game we have to be focused. We have to concentrate and do our job. We’re not going to take Iran lightly because they’re not going to take us lightly. So we have to go out with everything that we have. This squad is probably a year-plus old, it’s a new team. Most of the players are young.”

2. Does massive tournament underdog Iran have it in them? Will they be overwhelmed, or perhaps be too naive to be worried by the stage? Here’s Iran assistant coach, American Dan Gaspar (read more about him here).

“”We have worked incredibly hard,” Gaspar said. “We are not a team of stars, we are a team that is humble and willing to sacrifice and suffer to earn the best possible result with the abilities we have.”

Expectation: Nigeria will press Iran, which will hope to keep the space between them to a minimum. Tight-marking that could get boring if a goal doesn’t come early.

One blogger’s prediction: Nigeria eventually breaks Iran down, but Ashkan Dejagah finds a moment of brilliance on the counter. 3-1, Nigeria.