The 2019 AFC Asian Cup in the United Arab Emirates produced many thrills, spills, shocks, and a handful of truly spectacular goals.
Australia, the reigning champions, struggled badly to generate goal-scoring opportunities, eventually going out with a whimper to the hosts in front of a partisan crowd.
Saudi Arabia under-performed once again, the late arrival on Tottenham superstar Son Heung-Min was not enough to propel Korea Republic further than the quarters, and Japan made it all the way to the final playing some thoroughly uncharacteristic football.
Iran looked nailed-on favourites until their sudden semi final collapse, and so it was Qatar – playing in the very nation that orchestrated a politically-motivated economic blockade of their homeland – who shocked the world by lifting their first-ever Asian Cup. The victory no doubt justifies the huge sums they’ve spent on youth development since the turn of the century, and gives their squad a huge confidence boost ahead of hosting the highly controversial 2022 World Cup.
But who were the outstanding individuals?
Maty Ryan (Australia)
Despite Australia’s struggles to create chances throughout their campaign, Graham Arnold’s side were blessed with an absolute titan between the sticks. The Brighton & Hove Albion shot-stopper lived up to his Premier League billing, routinely coming to the Socceroos’ rescue in clutch moments, and could barely be held accountable for a single goal he conceded. His quality was on show in the round of 16 against Uzbekistan, denying Eldor Shomurodov early on before saving two penalties in the shootout.
Hiroki Sakai (Japan)
At 28 years of age and with 49 caps to his name, Sakai is a relative veteran in a youthful Japan squad. The Samurai Blue had a thoroughly inconsistent tournament, but Sakai was a constant, dependable contributor, charging up and down the right flank with great power and physicality in the tackle. His lung-busting stamina and no-frills approach will have won him many admirers, and he would undoubtedly be an asset to any hard-pressing Bundesliga or Premier League outfit if he were tempted to leave Marseille.
Boualem Khouki (Qatar)
The naturalised Algerian plays alongside Xavi at Al-Sadd, and perhaps the Spanish maestro’s influence has been rubbing off on him, because Khouki’s distribution from the back was brilliant.
Regardless of whether he was deployed in central defence or holding midfield, Khouki’s impact was clear, and Qatar didn’t concede a goal for the entire tournament until he was forced off through injury in the final. He even chipped with two goals – one of which was a crucial opener in their semi final demolition of the UAE.
Takehiro Tomiyasu (Japan)
The 20 year-old prodigy currently plays his football for Japanese-owned Sint-Truiden, in the Jupiler Pro League in Belgium. Judging by his performances in this tournament, he won’t be there for long.
Tomiyasu won just about every aerial ball that came near him, and far outshone Southampton’s Maya Yoshida in the heart of the Japanese defence. A constant threat from set pieces, Tomiyasu netted the only goal in a 1-0 smash and grab victory over Saudi Arabia, and looks set to be a Nippon stalwart for years to come.
Abdelkarim Hassan (Qatar)
Some may have not heard his name until recently, but the reigning Asian Footballer of the Year has certainly made his mark in the last 18 months. Another member of the Al-Sadd club that made the Semi Finals of the ACL, the left back is a rangy, languid, composed player with a cultured left foot.
Part of the nigh-on impregnable Qatari defence that conceded just one goal in the whole tournament, Hassan has an impeccable understanding with Akram Afif down the left flank, often releasing him to create opportunities on the counter attack.
Ashkan Dejagah (Iran)
After not playing a single minute at the World Cup, many Iranian fans questioned Carlos Queiroz’s decision to select the veteran midfielder ahead of younger options. Dejagah had barely featured at club level since he left Al Arabi in 2017 – his anonymous spells at Wolfsburg and Nottingham Forest suggested his days at the top level were behind him.
Boy did he prove the doubters wrong.
Queiroz built his midfield with Dejagah as the creative fulcrum, dropping deep to demand the ball and rolling back the years with incisive dribbles and through balls. Iran played the best football at the tournament until their semi final capitulation, and Dejagah was a major reason why. He will be disappointed with the way he lost his composure went they went behind against Japan, but he was hardly alone on that front.
Hwang In-Beom (Korea Republic)
Fresh out of military service, Hwang was discharged from the Army team after winning Gold at the 2018 Asian Games, returning to Daejeon Citizen. After seeing him in action at the Asian Cup, it seems absurd that Hwang has spent the majority of his career to date in the K2 League.
An intelligent deep-lying playmaker who can thread the tightest of gaps between the line, Hwang is also adept at moving off the ball, losing his marker and finding space to receive it. His awareness of defensive space further complements the South Korean line-up, and it seemed no coincidence that they conceded the decisive goal to Qatar mere moments after Paulo Bento made the bizarre decision to withdraw him.
His now-agreed transfer to MLS outfit Vancouver Whitecaps seems a sideways move, but it will hopefully prove a springboard to bigger and better things.
Takumi Minamino (Japan)
Japan were a curiosity this tournament – a far cry from the dominant possession play with which they’re stereotypically associated, Hajime Moriyasu frequently preferred to play without the ball, and hit teams in transition. As a result, they struggled when required to take the initiative, grinding out narrow wins against Turkmenistan and Oman, and coming up short in the final.
Their reliance on Minamino became an unhealthy one, as his movement became virtually their only route to create chances against set defences. The RB Salzburg forward chipped in 3 assists, including his piece of quick thinking against Iran to keep the ball in play and cross for Osako, and pulled a goal back for Japan in the final.
Akram Afif (Qatar)
Eleven assists. Eleven! Need I say more? The ASPIRE Academy product was an absolute revelation, with his sensational burst of pace destroying opponents in transition. His telepathic understanding with Almoez Ali was a rich vein for Qatar, and although it took him until the final to get on the scoresheet himself, it was fitting that his ice-cool penalty sealed victory for the Maroons.
The next step for him is to finish his loan at Al Sadd and try his luck in Europe – perhaps at his parent club, Villareal. A fine footballer with a huge future ahead of him.
Sardar Azmoun (Iran)
The “Iranian Messi” faced such virulent online abuse after his World Cup performances, he temporarily retired from national team duty. Thank goodness for Team Melli he was persuaded to return. Azmoun’s nickname is absurd for many reasons – he bullies defenders with his height and strong build, and his relentless work rate means Iran can defend effectively in a high block. Netting 4 goals in 6 games, Azmoun’s one-man show against China perhaps tempted his teammates into thumping ill-advised long balls at him in the semi final against Japan.
A proposed move from Rubin Kazan to Wolverhampton collapsed on deadline day, but he wasted no time in securing another transfer, sealing €12 million to fellow Russian Premier League outfit Zenit St Petersburg.
Almoez Ali (Qatar)
Who else? Another ASPIRE graduate, Ali most often plays out wide for club side Al-Duhail, but his record-breaking performances at #9 for the Maroons will ensure he is in high demand, with many big European clubs now rumoured to be chasing his signature. Question marks over his eligibility aside, Almoez netted an astonishing seven goals in the Group Stage, before going on to break Ali Daei’s all-time tournament record with spectacular strikes in both the semi final and the final.
His game is an enticing mixture of speed, athleticism, and truly explosive finishing ability. He has demonstrated considerable creativity in front of goal, and he is a menace in the air – as Saudi Arabia and North Korea discovered the hard way.
The tournament’s breakout star deservedly took home both the Golden Boot and the Golden Ball, earnt praise from Jose Mourinho, and will be key if Qatar are to punch above their weight again in 2022.