Asian Cup Group D: No real surprises as Japan and Iraq progress
Japanese players celebrate goal against Iraq.

This group was the only group of the four that followed the pre-tournament predictions. Japan, the favourites, prevailed winning all 3 games and Iraq, surprise Champions in 2007 and regular quarter finalists, join them in the next round.

Jordan are a decent side but their shocking run of form before the tournament continued and they exited despite beating Palestine 5-1. The Palestinians along with the North Koreans were the biggest unknown quantity of the tournament.

This was their first ever appearance in the finals but before their arrival all sorts of rumours were swirling around about whether they would be able to field a team. There was uncertainty over who the manager would be; it was Saeb Jendeya until October until Ahmed Al Hassan replaced him. One explanation that has been banded about is that Jendeya didn’t have the right coaching badges. Also a member of the playing squad, Sameh Marabah, was prevented from travelling to the tournament by Israeli authorities due to political hostilities in the region. Like North Korea they gained a lot of local support in all three games.

They couldn’t have asked for a much tougher first game, as they had to play Champions Japan. While the work rate and the endeavour of the Palestinian players should be applauded, especially Abdallatif Al Bahdari who was brilliant in all 3 games, in truth they were outclassed. Yasuhito Endo opened the scoring with a low shot from distance that rolled into the corner of the net but the keeper, Ramzi Saleh, perhaps should’ve done better.

25 minutes in the defending Champions doubled their lead thanks to Shinji Okazaki’s lightning fast reactions. Endo sent Yuto Nagatomo down the left and he made his way into the box before pulling it back and the ball eventually found Shinji Kagawa on the edge of the box. The Borussia Dortmund man let fly with a blistering effort but it was going wide until Okazaki quickly stuck his head in the way and directed it goal wards.

Right on the stroke of half time Japan won a penalty when Kagawa went down in the box after Musab Battat shoved him. The replays showed that it was a little soft but the defender clearly had his arms on Kagawa’s back. Star man Keisuke Honda stepped up and slotted home easily.

Five minutes into the second half Japan scored again, this time it was Southampton’s Maya Yoshida. Endo played the corner short to Kagawa who crossed the ball on the turn and the big defender was unchallenged in the air as he nodded home. At this point Japan clearly took their foot off of the gas as the game started to resemble a training session. Credit to the Palestinian fans though who were clearly happy to just be there and created a great atmosphere throughout the whole 90 minutes.

The other game that day, Jordan - Iraq, was arguably the most important of the group. With Japan clearly the best side in the group and Palestine suffering a heavy defeat meant that it was probably down to these two sides as to who would finish second. The game was extremely well balanced it took a moment of magic to break the deadlock late on from Yaser Kasim. In the 77th minute he received the ball just outside the box after a slick one-two with Alaa Abdul Zahra before beating three defenders and sending home a deflected effort into the top corner. Jordan’s Bani Yaseen was sent off in the dying stages for a second yellow card.

Jordan knew that they had to win against Palestine to give themselves a chance of progressing as they faced Japan in the final game. They did just that; Yousef Ahmad got them off to a great start with one of the goals of the tournament, a curled effort into the top corner. Then Hamza Al Dardour took over. He scored two before the break to make it 3-0 and he completed his hat trick, the first of the tournament, in the 75th minute. He even managed to grab a fourth in the 80th minute to make it 5-0 but then came one of the moments of the tournament.

Palestine had a free kick in added time and the initial header from Al Bahdari went into the air. The ball fell to Jaka Hbaisha who managed to squeeze it in from a tight angle to the delight of all around the stadium. All the fans celebrated, Palestinians, neutrals and Jordanians alike as Palestine registered their first ever goal at the tournament.

Japan faced Iraq that same day and Honda like Al Dardour could’ve had four except he only managed one and was denied by the wood work three times. His first came when Nagatomo cut back and crossed to the far post where he was standing unmarked but he headed it down onto the post. When it came to his second opportunity he put it away with ease. Running for the ball inside the box he was clearly taken out by Ali Adnan and for the second game in a row he scored a penalty. He hit the crossbar later on with his right foot before his last effort struck the post in what is probably going to be the miss of the tournament.

Japan counter attacked with ferocious speed with Kagawa on the ball. He fed it to Hiroshi Kiyotake who played it across goal to Honda who, with the goal gaping, hit the upright.

In the final round of games every team had something to play for, Japan were ahead on 6 points but could still theoretically be knocked out if they lost to Jordan and Iraq won. Even Palestine could still get through but they would have to beat Iraq by a big margin and hope that Jordan lost to Japan. In the end there were no real surprises. Iraq dispatched Palestine 2-0 thanks to a header from Iraqi legend Younus Mahmood and a smart finish from Ahmed Yasin. Mahmood actually missed a penalty in the game but it was a terrible call from the referee in the first place to award the penalty.

Japan also did what they needed to do by beating Jordan 2-0 with Honda giving them the lead midway through the first half to make it 3 goals in 3 games for the AC Milan midfielder. In an almost identical position to which he had his famous miss he slotted home the rebound from Okazaki’s initial effort. Kagawa rounded off the victory in the 82nd minute after a cross from FC Tokyo’s Yoshinori Muto.