July 20, 2024

Iran vs. Qatar AFC U-23 Championships Arsalan Motahhari

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PersianFootball.com (Doha) – In its second match of the AFC U-23 Championships, Team Melli Omid suffered a heartbreaking 2-1 loss to hosts Qatar in the Jassim Bin Hamad stadium, but can still qualify for the quarterfinals when they face China on Monday.

The result marks the second time Iran has faltered on the road to Rio after a loss to Saudi Arabia in Tehran last March with the same scoreline. But unlike the last time when head-coach Mohammad Khakpour blamed his players’ inexperience, it was his own lack of experience that caused Iran to crack under pressure this time.

In a puzzling departure from managerial norms, Team Melli Omid’s starting line-up comprised out-of-position players, an unnecessary change to the back line used in the previous match, and senior national team star Mehdi Torabi on the bench – all decisions that proved fatal in this match.

Despite the assertion that he had done his homework analyzing Qatar, Khakpour employed a formation and game-plan that provided no defensive overlaps against Felix Sanchez’s multi-prong approach to offense and bursts of speed on both wings, with central defender Hossein Kanani, dispatched as a right-back, struggling to keep up the entire match.

Compounding the problem was Iran’s insistence to employ offside traps up the field, which eventually allowed Ahmed Alaaeldin to break away from Team Melli Omid’s back four in the 35th minute, to find himself one-on-one with keeper Mohammadreza Akhbari and calmly slot the ball into the net on Qatar’s first shot on target.

Three minutes later, another poorly executed offside trap put Akram Afif in a similar situation, but Akhbari’s mastery kept him off the scoreboard. And three minutes later it was Almoez Ali who beat Iran’s offside trap and set up Ali Thaimn for Qatar’s second shot on target.

Despite enjoying 60% of the possession which created a false sense of dominance, Iran failed to register a single shot on target in the first half. And much to the surprise of the fans and pundits alike, there were no tactical adjustments or changes to the lineup at halftime.

In the 50th minute, Iran’s Arsalan Motahhari finally managed to get a shot on target from a very tight angle and was unlucky not to score or at least get a corner after Qatar keeper Muhannad Naim deflected the ball into the post with the rebound hitting the back of his head and rolling just inches wide of the upright.

Afif beat the Iranian offside trap again in the 54th minute only to be denied by a timely last second tackle from centre-back Roozbeh Cheshmi. And a minute later another poorly executed offside trap set up both Afif and Thaimn for a great goal-scoring opportunity but Akhbari disappointed the duo with his great reflexes.

But the ensuing corner proved Sanchez’s men are equally capable with set-plays, when central defender Abdelkarim Hassan broke away from his marker and Iranian counterpart Mohammad Daneshgar, to tap in the cross from just four yards out, doubling Qatar’s lead and becoming the tournament’s top scorer with 3 goals in two matches.

The goal finally jolted Khakpour into action with a double substitution in the 62nd minute that infused both Torabi and successful playmaker of the last match Milad Kamandani into the squad, with immediate impact on Team Melli Omid’s flow and offensive prowess.

In the 67th minute, Motahhari’s header off Vahid Heidarieh’s free kick forced a great reaction save from Naim who stopped the ball just above the goal line. And two minutes later Naim made clear his intentions, to prove this was not going to be Iran’s day, when he saved Cheshmi’s penalty shot after Motahhari had been brought down in the box.

With Torabi strutting his stuff, Iran kept the pressure on and created several good opportunities with Kamandani’s shot from the edge of the box just over the bar in the 82nd minute. And in the 88th minute Kanani and Cheshmi missed back to back opportunities to punish Qatar’s defense that was showing signs of fatigue.

Iran’s goal finally came in injury time and involved only 4 passes to give the fans a glimpse of what Team Melli Omid is really capable of. A beautiful flick by Motahhari, off Akhbari’s long kick from the edge of the box was headed down by Torabi and onto the path of Ali Karimi who beat the offside trap and gave Naim no chance to make another save.

Qatar reacted immediately and gave Iran another scare with Hassan piercing through Iran’s back-line to take a shot from the edge of the box, but Akhbari almost made the save look routine. With only two minutes of injury time, Iran’s goal proved to be too-little-too-late for this match, but could be crucial for advancing to the quarterfinals.

The focus will now shift to the match against China on Monday with the kickoff scheduled for 19:30 local time [17:30 CET, 11:30 EST]. A victory there will secure Iran’s spot in the quarterfinals although the ranking of the teams will depend on the result of the Qatar-Syria match to be played simultaneously.

The condensed schedule gives Khakpour & Co. only three days to conduct a post-mortem and regroup, before facing the weakest team of the group. And the fans are hoping that painful lessons learnt in this game will only help to solidify Team Melli Omid’s performances going forward.

Iran Formation: 4-1-4-1 (4-2-3-1 from minute 72)

Iran Starting Line-up: Mohammadreza Akhbari (G), Hossein Kanani (D), Roozbeh Cheshmi (D), Mohammad Daneshgar (D), Vahid Heidarieh (D), Ali Karimi (DM), Mehrdad Mohammadi (M), Mahan Rahmani (M), Alireza Naghizadeh (M), Milad Mohammadi (M), Arsalan Motahhari (F). Coach: Mohammad Khakpour


62′: Mehdi Torabi (M) for Milad Mohammadi
62′: Milad Kamandani (M) for Mahan Rahmani
72′: Ehsan Pahlevan (M) for Mehrdad Mohammadi

Extended Highlights [Persian Commentary]