China and Iran share spoils
Iran are in the driving seat to win a competitive AFC Asian Cup 2007 Group C after recovering a two-cushion to hold China to a 2-2 draw in their second outing. The match, played on Sunday in Kuala Lumpur, left the rivals even on four points. However, the Iranians appear to have the easier task with a meeting against co-hosts Malaysia ahead, while China face a potentially tricky encounter with Uzbekistan in their final game needing at least a point to advance to the knockout stage.
China got off to a dream start in the Malaysian capital, goals from Shao Jiayi and Mao Jianqing sending them 2-0 up with little over 30 minutes on the clock. But Ferydoon Zandi pulled one back prior to the interval, before Javad Nekonam secured Iran a precious point with a second half header.
Despite missing out on the three points, China coach Zhu Guanghu applauded his team's performances, particularly in the first half. "Boosted by the 5-1 win against Malaysia in the first match, the players played a very beautiful first half in this game. We largely limited the attacking-minded opponents and created plenty of chances from which we converted two. I am satisfied with their performances."
Clash of the heavyweights
Having showed their prolific form in the pre-tournament warms-up, which included an eye-catching 8-1 reverse of Jamaica, the three-time Asian champions Iran entered the competition as one of forerunners for the title. They opened up with a 2-1 victory over Uzbekistan, but China's one-sided 5-1 defeat of Malaysia lifted their own spirits ahead of the pool's standout fixture. Moreover, the Chinese were able to take heart from their penalty shootout win over Iran in the semi-final of the Asian Cup 2004, when they eventually finished as runners-up to Japan.
Zhu Guanghu kept faith with the players who had made light work of Malaysia, while Iran
coach Amir Ghalenoei made only one change, with midfielder Hossein Kaebi replacing Seyed Jalal Hosseini. It was China who dominated the early stages, posting five shots in the opening eight minutes, including the opening goal in the sixth minute. Towering forward Han Peng was fouled by Java Nekonam and from the ensuing free-kick, Energie Cottbus midfielder Shao Jiayi thundered a 30-yard drive into the top left corner.
Falling behind sparked Iran into action and their first chance came when captain Mehdi Mahdavikia's well-taken corner found Vahid Hashemian, only for the Bundesliga-based striker to head narrowly wide. Nevertheless, with Iran heaping on the pressure, China doubled their lead. Midfielder Zheng Zhi played fed Shanghai Shenhua midfielder Mao Jianqing, who even had time to comfortably chest down the ball before unleashing a powerful shot past opposition keeper Hassan Rodbarian in the 32nd minute.
On the stroke of half-time, though, Iran reduced the deficit through Ferydoon Zandi, who caught Chinese keeper Li Leilei out with a quickly-taken free-kick.
China looked the better side in the first half but Iran, who emerged from the break inspired by their coach's words, took control of proceedings in the second. Ghalenoei made two substitutions, with attacking midfielder Eman Mobali replacing Kaebi and Javed Kazemian, who scored the winner against Uzbekistan, taking Ali Karimi's place. His trust in Kazemian was repaid when the forward's snap-shot was tipped over by Li Leilei for a corner, from which Nekonam headed the equaliser on 71 minutes.
Summing up the lessons learned from this match, coach Zhu pointed out that his Chinese charges needed to improve their capacity to deal with set pieces. "The fact that Iran scored both goals through set pieces, the first a free-kick and the second a corner, shows that this is the area which we need to improve," he said.