AFC Asian Cup: Iran has to be wary as underdog Syria looks to continue fairytale run

By Amirhadi Arsalanpour
Staff writer

Three-time champion Iran will be looking to continue its quest for a first AFC Asian Cup trophy in nearly five decades in the round of 16 of the continent’s major international tournament today.
Standing between the Asian powerhouse and a showdown with Japan or Bahrain – which will square off earlier today – in the quarterfinals is Syria, which was inspired by a high-profile Argentinian head coach in Hector Cuper for a first-ever progress into the knockout phase of the tournament.
A trademark combination between Roma striker Sardar Azmoun and Porto frontman Mahdi Taremi saw the latter find the back of the net twice as Iran defeated the United Arab Emirates 2-1 for a clean sweep of group victories – a feat only achieved by Qatar and Iraq.
In securing a place among the four best third-placed teams across the six groups, Syria had Omar Khribin to thank for a historic night as the veteran striker came off the bench to score his team’s sole goal in three outings for a 1-0 victory over India last time out.
All the facts and figures as well as the history of the two sides’ head-to-head make Iran the ultimate favorite to win today’s encounter but the outcome of the tournament so far suggest anything but an easy test for Amir Qalenoei’s men as football fans in the continent have been treated to some shock results in Qatar.
Japan’s 2-1 loss to Iraq and South Korea’s failure to finish atop the group, followed by surprise last-16 wins for Tajikistan and Jordan, mean Qalenoei will have to make sure his men will take nothing for granted when stepping onto the pitch in Doha’s Abdullah bin Khalifa Stadium.
While Iran’s performance has been just decent amidst under-par displays by the pretournament favorites, the backline looked vulnerable every time the team was disposed of the ball in its own half – even against minnow opponents in Palestine and Hong Kong – and a repeat of the incident could cost Qalenoei’s side dearly against the prolific Khribin – a former Asian Player of the Year who has fond memories of playing against Iranian goalkeeper Alireza Beiranvand, bagging five goals in Al Hilal’s 6-2 aggregate  victory over Persepolis in the AFC Champions League semifinals seven years ago – not to mention Iran will be without center-backs Hossein Kan’ani and Majid Hosseini through suspension and injury, as well as fullback Sadeq Moharrami, who will be out for months after suffering a torn ligament against the UAE.
For all the lack of goals in the group phase, Cuper will be looking to build on his team’s solid performance in the back – which saw Syria concede only once in a defeat by Australia while keeping a clean sheet against Uzbekistan – when facing Azmoun and Taremi, probably the deadliest duo in the Asian football.
“I believe it is going to be one of our toughest games in the tournament as Syria has a top coach on the bench and enjoys a well-organized backline. Mr. Cuper has been a great coach in forming a solid defensive structure in his teams as he did with Valencia and Inter,” Qalenoei said in Tuesday’s press conference, adding: “We have to take lessons from our mistakes in the previous games and stay focused throughout the contest.”
Qalenoei said he has been trying to change the team’s defensive approach and mindset – which was built under former coach Carlos Queiroz during his nine-year spell in charge – since he took the role less than a year ago.
“Individual errors saw us concede two goals in the group stage, but we will still play an attack-minded football against Syria as we want our fans to enjoy watching their team,” added Qalenoei.
“I’ve always told my players to showcase their individual skills on the pitch, specially in the final third, as dribbling and technical flair are the main features of the Iranian football.”
Cuper might be best remembered by being an unfortunate runner-up when his Valencia team fell to defeats against European heavyweights Real Madrid and Bayern Munich in back-to-back UEFA Champions League finals in the early 2000s, but the Argentine knows an underdog victory today will go down as one of the biggest achievements in his 30-year managerial career.
If you have any doubt about what the fairytale run in Qatar means to war-ravaged Syrians – whose team includes players who have learned their trades overseas as a result of years of migration caused by the domestic conflict – just watch the viral footage of the beIN SPORTS reporter and Cuper’s translator bursting into tears and hugging each other during an interview with the Argentinian coach after the historic victory over India.

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