First blood drawn in Asia
Iran, Syria and Vietnam were the major victors on the opening day of qualifying action for the 2011 AFC Asian Cup where a number of aspirants commenced the long journey towards Qatar.
Chief among the conquerors were three-time Asian champions Iran who took advantage of a Singapore side reduced to ten men to record a stunning 6-0 whitewash.
Having won all four previous meetings with Syria over the past two decades, China, under interim coach Yin Tiesheng entered the group opener with a clear psychological edge. Eleven days out from the Chinese Lunar New Year, the team was expected to add to the festivities with a convincing win.
However Syria stunned the visitors by racing to a 3-0 half-time advantage with China's shaky defense gifting their opponent's two penalties.
The match proved to be a personal nightmare for Chinese captain Du Wei who needlessly fouled Ali Diab for the first penalty just six minutes into the game. Maher Al Sayed scored from the spot and then doubled the lead eighteen minutes later. Six minutes prior to the break the Shanghai Shenhua defender committed another foul in the penalty area, with the resultant spot kick this time converted by Firas Al Khatib.
Three goals down, China pulled one back through substitute forward Qu Bo six minutes into the second half. Liu Jian further reduced the deficit deep into stoppage time but it was to no avail for the Chinese.
"The 3-2 win was vital for us after the disappointing results we have got recently," said exuberant Syrian coach Fajr Ibrahim. "The result shows that we can play with an attacking formation and hopefully we can continue winning in the coming games."
In the other Group D match, Vietnam continued their excellent recent form which saw them win last month's Suzuki Cup, to register a solid 3-1 win over Lebanon in Hanoi. Nguyen Minh Phuong opened the scoring for the hosts after only eleven minutes with star striker Le Cong Vinh then making it 2-0 on the half hour.
The Vietnamese advantage was further extended on 69 minutes, when Nguyen Vu Phong latched onto Nguyen Viet Thang's excellent cross for their third, making Akram Moghrabi's goal five minutes later little more than consolation for Lebanon.
The most striking performance on the opening day of action came in Tehran's imposing Azadi Stadium where the home supporters were treated to a goal-fest as Ali Daei's charges scored six goals without reply against the hapless Singaporeans. The win, coupled with the goalless draw between Jordan and Thailand in the other group match, has Iran already maintaining a firm grip on the standings.
Singapore defended well to keep the Iranians at bay early on but the tide changed five minutes prior to the interval with the visitors reduced to ten men after Ismail Yunos received his marching orders. Only two minutes later Iran broke the deadlock through Majid Gholamnejad to kick-start the landslide.
Legendary midfielder Karim Bagheri was on target for his 50th international goal shortly after the resumption, with Gholamreza Rezaei extending the advantage soon after. The Iranians topped an impressive second half showing with three goals in the closing ten minutes with firstly Mazyar Zareh scoring his debut international goal before Mohammed Nouri completed a quick double.
The win leaving Daei in confident mood ahead of their potentially pivotal showdown with the Korean Republic on 11 February in the next stage of qualifying for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™. "Our young players are developing fast and getting better," said Daei. "The match was a good chance for us to prepare for the more important matches."
AFC Asian Cup qualifying will continue later this month across all five groups with Japan's visit to Bahrain and Indonesia hosting Australia amongst the highlights.
2011 AFC Asian Cup qualifying, matchday 1 results:
14 January, Wednesday