Teams set new milestones in UAE 2019 group stage
Abu Dhabi: With the AFC Asian Cup UAE 2019 dominating the football agenda, the tournament continues to excite millions across the Continent and beyond, with some captivating moments and milestones as the group stage matches drew to a close on Thursday.
The 36 matches over the last 13 days saw their fair share of drama and upsets, producing a total of 96 goals - which is an average of 2.67 per match, surpassing the 2015 edition that saw an average of 2.54 goals over 24 matches in Australia.
One of the tournament’s biggest highlights has been its expanded format from 16 to 24 teams, which sees the introduction of the competition’s first-ever Round of 16 stage – a decision that has reaped its rewards – with the Continent’s emerging nations showing their ability to stand proud alongside the traditional powerhouses.
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Most notably, Kyrgyz Republic became the first debutants since Australia in 2007 to clinch their place in the knockout round, after the White Falcons carved out an impressive 3-1 victory over fellow first timers, Philippines on Wednesday. They will now face hosts United Arab Emirates on Monday, 9:00pm local time.
Oman followed closely behind a day later, securing a 3-1 victory over Turkmenistan to clinch their inaugural knockout stage berth after three previous attempts, with tournament heavyweights, Islamic Republic of Iran waiting in the wings for the West Asians on Sunday in Abu Dhabi.
Thailand are another side who have capitalised on the new format – the War Elephants orchestrated one of the tournament’s most remarkable turnarounds, recovering from their opening 4-1 defeat to India to clinch a place in the knockout stage for the first time in 47 years.
Despite being eliminated in the group stage, Palestine, who were appearing in only their second AFC Asian Cup, created history by claiming their first-ever point in the competition when they held Syria in their Group B opener, only to match that performance with another spirited draw in their final group match against Jordan.
Similarly, India, who despite seeing qualification slip away from them in the final minutes against Bahrain on Monday, will take some comfort from their memorable 4-1 opening victory over Thailand – their first win on Asia’s most prestigious stage in 55 years.
Facing similar anguish were Lebanon, who despite grabbing their maiden victory in the AFC Asian Cup against DPR Korea, suffered elimination on the final day of the group stage at the expense of Vietnam, who squeezed their way into the knockout round having received two yellow cards less than the Cedars.
While the 17th edition has produced a wealth of formidable team displays, there have also been moments of individual brilliance, with Qatar’s Almoez Ali emerging as one of the tournament’s brightest sparks.
The 22-year-old is the only player to have scored in all three group matches and his seven goals are just one shy of Ali Daei’s record of eight goals set in the 1996 edition when the tournament was last held in the UAE. Ali has formed a telepathic partnership with teammate Akram Hassan Afif, who along with Australia’s Chris Ikonomidis, is tied for providing the most assists in the competition.
The introduction of Korea Republic’s Son Heung-Min has also set the competition alight. Despite featuring in just one match against China PR, the livewire midfielder is tied in third place for creating seven chances for the Taeguk Warriors.
The thrilling action will restart on Sunday, January 20, with the tournament’s surprise package Jordan taking on Vietnam at the Al Maktoum Stadium in Dubai at 3:00pm (local time).
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