Triple-champions Iran survived a scare against the Uzbeks in Kuala Lumpur as they kicked off their drive for a first Asian Cup title in 31 years. Their 2-1 come-from-behind victory puts them second in Group C, behind China on goal-difference with the top two teams progressing to the quarter-finals. The two sides play each other on Sunday.
In front of a paltry crowd at the National Stadium, normally unflappable defender Rahman Rezaei put Iran on the rack with a first-half own goal.
Seyed Jalal Hosseini rescued them with the equalizer on 55 minutes before substitute Javad Kazemian took the points with a late winner.
Fiery Iran coach Amir Ghalenoei lived up to his reputation when he was sent off late in the match for throwing a water bottle.
He is the second coach to be shown a red card, with Qatar’s Dzemaldin Musovic banished from the dugout on Monday for remonstrating with the referee in their game against Japan.
“I was angry at one of our players who lost the ball very easily. So I complained to him but the referee thought I was complaining at him (the referee), so I was sent off,” said Ghalenoei.
Iran trail China on goal-difference at the top of Group C with the top two teams progressing to the quarter-finals. They play China on Sunday and Malaysia on Wednesday.
“Thank God we started with a win,” added Ghalenoei. “We didn’t know much about Uzbekistan so we had to assess them in the first half. Also we were a bit nervous.”
Uzbek coach Rauf Inileyev, who said before the match that he was looking for a point, felt his side were unlucky not to do just that.
“Everyone said we would be afraid of Iran because they’re such a strong team but we also had very good chances to score,” he said.
“Iran are very experienced in the Asian Cup but we could have won it too. Unfortunately our players couldn’t play as well in the second half as they did in the first half. It’s a great pity.”
Elsewhere in the same tournament, South Korea ground out a 1-1 draw in their crucial “group of death” showdown against Saudi Arabia as regional powerhouse Iran came from behind to beat Uzbekistan.
The Koreans, looking for their first victory over the Persian Gulf side in 18 years, looked on track when Choi Sung-kuk buried a header in the 66th minute before Saudi captain Yasser Al Qahtani converted a penalty with 13 minutes to go.
It leaves Indonesia unexpectedly topping Group D after their victory over Bahrain on Tuesday, with two more group games to play.
“Saudi Arabia has very skillful players and a very good defense so I think we did well against one of the strongest teams in the tournament,” said South Korea’s Dutch coach Pim Verbeek.
“We had a nervous start but after 15 minutes we got control of the game and in the second half we did very well. The penalty was unlucky for us but overall I am pleased.”
Saudi coach Helio Dos Angos was equally happy with a point.
“The first game is always hard,” said the Brazilian.
“We have a young team, a new generation, and the game was not easy. They are a tough team but I am happy with the performance of my players.”
Thailand play Oman and Qatar face Vietnam in matches on Thursday.