Saturday, January 19, 2019

AFC 2019--Round of Sixteen

As-Salam Syndicate Members,

Quite the tournament we’ve beheld thus far, brothers. So much drama on the final day of the group stages. Say what one will about these 24-team-tournaments, they really do encourage a high-scoring third round. 

Late pushes from Oman and Lebanon provided for some real captivating viewing. A 2.67 per-match goal average means we’re on par with the most exciting tournaments covered in our pages.

Always proves fun to work with the tiebreakers and permutations, but some crave the spectacle of one-on-one elimination action. It’s here, mates. The Knockout Rounds arrive at last. With one exception, the bookie’s predicted sixteen made it through. Stats took a slight hit, but no apologies from the bookmaker are necessary. 

Anxious to get to the football as eight fantastic matches await us. 

My Updated Stats:

Spread: 17-19
Straight Up: 22-9-5

Bookie checks his mail.

Related image

Reader: I’ve figured out what it is, Vicey. It’s “Tactical Football Copulation”.

Vicey: Bwahaha. Well done, 23-M. There’s music in that. 

Get to work on some promotional materials.
Reader: Made something prettier than your blog in 1.2 minutes over at 

Vicey:  36-M…..Are you truly suggesting an optical upgrade? We don’t do that here. Pragmatic and flexible thinking from your friendly bookie? That would violate my sacred tendency to bury myself in completely unnecessary minutiae, thereby sabotaging any chances of succeeding at anything. I’m glad you live life by the “What can I do to quickly get this shit done?” Mantra, but some of us just can’t let ourselves off the hook so easily.

In all seriousness, what a damned awesome site! All football fanatics must visit. It’s my profound pleasure to give it a plug.

Reader: Explain the Euro-trash obsession, Vicey.

Vicey: Of course, 67-M. Writers accustomed to working on tight deadlines resort to dreadful dross techno in order to speed them up. Horrid bass beats fill in when alcohol isn’t an option. Your thesis got submitted on time thanks to endless shared sessions with Joachim von Schmelzenlaugenbrötchen.

In da Mix!

Reader: More highlights? 

Vicey: Okay. Full disclosure. No actual member requested this. Bookie just needs to share.

This guy’s definitely one of my new faves. Love the call on the second Aussie goal. Mark Milligan’s handball is priceless. 

Been having some difficulty getting great East Asian calls. Don’t know whether they’re Japanese or Korean, but I’d love to have these guys over for a beer.

Respect for the Vietnamese announcers. Can’t get enough of the call on Quang Hai’s free kick goal in the 38th. The penalty call  in the 62nd also serves as a real treat.

You simply have to hear the call on Ahmed Kano’s set-piece goal in the 20th along with the two late Omani goals. Take note that the one in the 93rd officially sealed qualification for the Knockouts.

Reader: Where are the Hot Girl Standings? 

Vicey: That’s an exclusive Summer Feature, 109-M. You know that. Continental Chapters don’t share the same level of silly-heartedness. We’ve been through this before. Do your own scouting. Bookie has lineups to project. We’ve much tactical nuance to discuss. Ahem...

......So much tactical nuance to discuss.....

Such a shame this blog is blocked in Iran. There's plenty more glowing praise for their football team in the "necks" post ; )

Time to wave goodbye to the departing countries. As noted already, bookie’s picks for the advancing sixteen were nearly spot on. 

Goodbyes Section

 24th Place—Korea DPR 

The Hermit Kingdom finishes dead last. A horrible display. Way to show em’, Chollima. Nothing like a chasmal minus thirteen goal differential to bring home to the Fat Man. Kwang-ryong Pak managed to sneak in a soft set-piece in the final match against Lebanon. That goal, which really came courtesy of an abysmal howler from the keeper, ended up being the slight difference that edged the cedars out of advancement.

Thanks for playing spoilers. Now go away. Forever.

 23rd Place—Yemen 

Not quite the strong finish I had hoped for, but at least they didn’t get totally dismantled. Had they taken advantage of Dang Van Lam’s amateurish goalkeeping error in the 17thwe might be discussing a different result. Losing Emad Mansoor so early didn’t help either. Nevertheless, we witnessed some professional play from the likes of Al-Saori and Al-Radaei. Really liked that spell close to the hour mark. Unfortunately, Ba Rowis and Al-Sasi couldn't build on their previous positive performance. They dipped down heavily.

A pity they couldn’t get at least one goal for their fans. This tournament may constitute the only time a unified Yemen ever qualifies for a major international competition. It was a historic first and last for “The Happy Yemen”. No there’s nothing left to discuss but…well…let’s just move on. 

Your friendly bookie can’t change the world. Make sure to give generously to relief efforts. 

 22nd Place—The Philippines 

Did the bookie effing well tell you or what? How many times did I call out the false hype surrounding this team? Bunch of floundering flaccid fill. There was NEVER anything there. I found myself Lapping up the laughter when their perpetual failure of a manager expressed confidence in them making the Knockouts. I couldn’t help but chortle profusely when they got pounded like a punch drunk prizefighter. A fiendishly bad first half. Lucky they got saved by the bell.

Horrible squad selection from Sven Goran Erikson. Adam Tull, Luke Woodland, Adam Reed and Manuel Ott? Reichelt, Schröck, and Ingreso played even worse than in previous matches next to all these new players. Then everyone tried to make a big deal about Phil Younghusband coming on. Sigh…no one listens to the bookie. It got even worse from there. 

Not a hint of furor or focus from anyone. This had something to do with the fact that nobody knew where the hell they were supposed to be. To lift the bookie’s observation from Round Two, “They didn’t know what the shit they were doing out there”. A crap fluke goal at the end. Wow. 

No, they’re not on the football map. It’s not up for discussion. We’re moving on.  

 21st Place—Turkmenistan 

Bookie finds himself bereft of ideas for the space he needs to fill here…or at least he was until Altymyrat Annadurdyyew supplied us with that neat finish. Indeed. Why not discuss Altymyrat Annadurdyyew’s goal? The Emeralds just keep coming through for me. Just when you think you can’t compose a full paragraph, there’s Altymyrat Annadurdyyew. It may have been a flukish goal gifted to him from a lucky deflection off of Khasib, but fuck it. It’s Altymyrat Annadurdyyew!

Bookie highly recommends this football team to all Second Graders looking to pad a report they did absolutely no research for. You’re well on your way to meeting a page limit when you start with, “There are many similarities between Mammet Orzamuhammedow and Guycmyrat Annagulyyew and many differences between Bahtiyar Hojaamedow and Wahyt Orzasähedow.”

You’ll get a D-plus and still have time to play FIFA. ; )  

 20th Place—Syria 

Out with less than a whimper. Fans, including this one, finally got a chance to behold what Omar Khrbin is capable of when he hits his stride. Determined work from him in front of Ryan to net that initial goal. Loved the set-up work from Ajan too. Al-Soma and Haj Mohammed both opted to wake up. Even Fahd Youseff found his legs later on. Somehow Fajr managed to breathe some life into Al-Mawas and Mobayed. Both were serviceable. 

The Quaysons bow out in a match which featured many controversies, but on balance bookie believed they deserved to drop their final fixture. Close inspection reveals that Mohammed Osman pushed his marker in the back on the disallowed goal. Not so sure Mark Milligan’s handball was deliberate. Even if it was, the penalty call that broke Syria’s way in the 80th was ludicrous.  

 19th Place—Palestine 

As predicted way back at the beginning, they did significantly better than in 2015. Two draws. Two points. That doesn’t mean they were anywhere approaching good. We had to wait until the second half of their third match to watch them get their first legitimate chance on goal. Bookie will credit Mahmoud Wadi, Yashir Islame, and Abdelatif Bahdari with some spirited play….and that’s about it.

Their two clean sheets came courtesy of woeful attacks. I noticed maybe three sharp tackles over three matches. The rest was mostly desperate lunges, far too few of which were recorded as fouls. All of the above mentioned players got into space, but screwed their efforts embarrassingly wide. Oday Dabbagh executed a nice shake-and-bake at one point, but he too couldn’t finish worth a damn. 

 18th Place—Lebanon 

Believe it or not they came within a hair’s whisker of pulling it off. Radulovic promised goals and his boys delivered. Where the hell was that marvelous footwork from Maatouk earlier in the tournament? When did El-Helwe decide to start finishing? What about George Melki upping his performance from “atrocious” to “far below average”? Haidar was there? That’s news to me.

Bookie didn’t select the Cedars for advancement as he knew they couldn’t hope to overcome the Vietnamese on goal difference. They entered the match needing a four-goal margin of victory and very nearly secured it. At the end of the day even nine minutes of injury time wasn’t enough. They only have themselves to blame. Melki, Maatouk, and El-Helwe may have all scored, but all three blew obscenely easy chances over the course of the match. Wide open goals. Pitiful to say the least. And don’t get me started on that melee in front of goal in the 68th. Bookie has banged his head against his desk enough already with respect to this team. 

For those interested, the Vietnamese advance over the cedars the EIGHTH tiebreaker. It’s a situation comparable to what we saw with Japan and Cameroon in Group H last Summer. The disciplinary record prevails as both teams had the same number of points, goal difference, goals for, goals against, etc. With no head-to-head comparisons, Vietnam advances with fewer yellow cards. Fair play at work

Sadly, FIFA never got back to the bookie concerning his proposal for using the “Hot Girl Standings” as a potential tiebreaker. It would have been a dead heat in this case as both countries brought their very best. Think Lebanon would have just eked it out.

 17th Place—India 

Heartbreak. This one’s a real tragedy. Of all the teams in the bookie’s selected sixteen not to make the cut, why did it have to be my Blue Tigers? Initially dismissed as a hopeless fringe team, your friendly bookie found a plethora of eloquent analysis on this side when researching the roster; all of it written by diehard Indians. It amazed me how much these cats whom you would assume aren’t interested in much besides cricket really love their football team.

A football team that hasn’t accomplished anything since the early 60s apparently has a huge following. The web teems with fan pages. English-language fan videos are everywhere. Indian sports websites gave the matches top billing. Every one of their fixtures was sold out! How can one not love it?

These guys belong in the fraternal order of Global Football. Even if they haven’t earned a place in the Knockouts, they’ve earned that. It’s been this bookkeepers great pleasure to meet some of the blue-bleeding ardent fans. Advancement would have permanently shifted the perception of the sport in the world’s largest democracy. What a shame to see them eliminated so agonizingly late by the same team that crushed their hopes eight years. Bookie actually found himself depressed for a couple of hours afterward. 

We’re going to give them one final draw-up. Some say it will take them decades to truly break onto the global scene, so we might as well.

 S.S.S. Tactical Breakdown

 Lineup—India—Match Two (4-4-2) (1/10/19) 

        Sunil Chhetri   Ashrique Kuruniyan
 Halicharan Narzary        Udanta Singh             
          Anirudh Thapa  Pronay Halder
 Subhasish Bose                     Pritam Kotal
        Anas Edathodika Sandesh Jhingan
                    Gurpreet Sandhu           

Lineup—India—Match Three (4-4-2) (1/14/19) 

        Sunil Chhetri   Ashrique Kuruniyan
 Halicharan Narzary        Udanta Singh             
          Rowllin Borges  Pronay Halder
 Subhasish Bose                     Pritam Kotal
        Anas Edathodika Sandesh Jhingan
                    Gurpreet Sandhu           

Constantine raised many an eyebrow with his decision to drop Thapa and give Pronay Halder the armband. Difficult to appraise this move as Halder actually did turn in a first-rate performance and Rowlin Borges added a needed stabilizing element to the defense. Everything went to hell with than early injury to Anas. Jhingan had to cover the ground of two centerbacks and Borges spent most of his time back helping Salman Ranjan. 

A beast of a match from Jhingan. He was frankly superhuman. The performance was so sensational from him that he’s been linked with at least three big value moves to larger clubs. Borges couldn't get comfortable. It’s as if the positioning move rattled him. Set-piece plays and passes from him looked nervy. Other adjustments after the injury threw them out of whack. Ashique spent a lot of time behind Chhetri in the first half. Narzary only got out wide a couple of times. Singh mostly just dropped off the radar.

The shape deviated to 4-5-1 and even a 4-4-1-1 later on. They mainly focused on holding and offside line and chucking hopeful balls upfield. Though they found something of an offensive groove late in the first half, the defense looked pretty worn down. One had the sense they would lose their legs.

Perhaps that’s why Constantine stuck with a defensive formation even after subbing on Jeje. The move itself suggested passing-based buildup were no longer part of the plan. In taking off Ashique, he curiously sacrificed a speed and height advantage for another target playmaker. The move produced nothing other than some bad touches and turnovers in the offensive third. 

By the time Thapa came on the in the 79th the formation might of well have been a 9-0-1. Constant bombardment by the Bahrainis throughout the half. The scene of eleven Indian players crowding the line on that late free kick perfectly epitomized how pinned back they were. The late penalty came courtesy of an awful clearance from Ranjan. Al-Shamsan rendered the foul necessary with two deft touches. Game over.  

The Ashokras now seek a new head coach after Constantine’s resignation. As long as they don’t hire Sven Goran Erikson, there’s a lot to build on. Chhetri’s retirement paves the way for Ashique, Halicharan, and Jackichand to lead the new generation. Other up-and-comers noted earlier by your friendly bookie include Poojari and Chhangte. Nishu Kumar and Manvir Singh may also be names we’ll grow to know.

Bookie avers that a bright future awaits…for whatever that’s worth. 

Onwards to the lines. Can’t wait to see the outcomes of these.

Sunday, January 20th  

Jordan vs. Vietnam


Bookie watched Borkelman’s latest changes to his eleven with rapt interest. In tournament football, a squad can often only be as good as their first reserve options. Al-Taamari’s absence left a very distinct void in the attacking third. More importantly, the lauded midfield rotational system broke down. Passing triangulation ground to a halt once Bani-Attiah, and Baha' Abdel-Rahman no longer felt comfortable loosely alternating their sides. A physical and disciplined side like the Golden Dragons might find a way through here.

Very little inventiveness on display from the Belgium trainer in the third match. All one really witnessed were some banal plug-ins to the existing system. Samir replaced Al-Taamari up top. Ahmed Ersan took over for Al-Rawashdeh on the right wing. Ihsan Haddad got a trial run at left back. The Chivalrous maintained a 4-2-3-1 shape for the majority of the fixture, rarely pressing forward with any real creativity. 

Ersan and Samir both had their moments. The former demonstrated that he can put some movement on the ball and got in some solid touches early on. The latter looked a lot better once Khadir and Rateb got on to join him in attack. The midfield engine never really got into third gear, but it did purr softly at times. Murjan and Abdel-Rahman ran hard enough to get some looks in. Note that the bookie reaches to obtain these tame positives. A candid assessment of their “Plan B” leaves them looking very vulnerable. 

Deep into the tactics we go to see if Park Hang-Seo’s men can manage the stunning upset. After some experimentation the South Korean coach appears to have gotten his defensive issues sorted out. In the second match he gave Doan Van Hao the nod at left back, slotted Que Ngoc Hai out to the right, and shuffled Bien Tien Dung and Do Duy Manh back to the centerback positions. A fortuitous suspension to the latter saw him slide Que Ngoc Hai back again. It turned out to be an excellent pairing. At times, Nguyen Phong Hong Duy dropped back with them to form a stable three-man-defensive front. Bookie deems them solid there. 

Offensively speaking, moving Phan Van Duc back to the central midfield position gave the attack some purpose. The twenty-two-year-old speedster makes for an exemplary “flight director”. He can kick it out to either Nguyen Quang Hai or Do Hung Dung on the flanks with ease. When the situation calls for it, he can also rush forward on the left and feed Nguyen Cong Phuong in an ad-hoc 4-4-2. 

I’ve designed an eleven below meant to draw upon these strengths and address the most pertinent issue facing the underdogs: A total lack of attacking prowess originating from the back. Do Duy Manh takes over for Luong Xuan Truong in midfield, who in turn replaces the rather disappointing Doan Van Hao at fullback. Should they wish to topple the superior side, they’ll simply have to better with build-ups out wide. 

In the end, it doesn’t look like it will be enough. Even if the Golden Dragons succeed in neutralizing Al-Taamari & Co, I don’t think they’ll be able to make their way through the clogged midfield. One must also take the Jordanian set-piece playbook into account. As beautiful as Nguyen Quang Hai’s scorcher was, the Chivalrous are far stronger on free kicks. 

The favorites prevail with a moment of magic after a tight, physical, and low-scoring affair.

Projected Lineups:

 “The Chivalrous” (4-2-3-1) 

                           Musa Al-Taamari
   Ahmed Ersan   Saeed Al-Murjan   Y. Al-Rawashdeh           
             Khalili Bani-Attiah  Baha' Abdel-Rahman 
 Salem Al-Ajalin                                Feras Shelbaieh            
                  Tareq Kattab  Anas Bani-Yaseen
                                Amer Shafi

 “The Golden Dragons” (4-5-1) 

                        Nguyen Cong Phuong
Do Hung Dung      Phan Van Duc     Nguyen Quang Hai             
              Do D. Manh          Nguyen T. Hoang
 Luon X. Troang                                  Nguyen P.H. Duy
               Bui Tien Dung   Que Ngoc Hai
                              Dang Van Lam      

Prop Bets (as always, feel free to offer your own)

Over/Under—2 Goals 
120 Minutes—Straight Up
Penalty Shootout—2 to 1

Al-Taamari brace—2 to 1
Ahmed Shafi howler—3 to 1
Van Toan start—Straight Up
Van Hai start—Straight Up

THE LINE: Jordan +1 Goal

Thailand vs. China PR


Damn this is a good one. The Chinese limp into this East Asian encounter missing their star forward. Wu Lei is likely done for the duration with a snapped collarbone. Problems pile up for Team Dragon. They just got systematically demolished by the South Koreans, appear to be in the midst of a complete tactical meltdown, and have four key players sitting on yellows. Marcelo Lippi faces serious issues here and he doesn’t appear up to the task. The fact that he was spotted engaging in some Löw-like nose-picking on the sidelines doesn’t inspire confidence. 

As predicted the Italian Maestro went with the best 4-3-3 he could muster. It failed miserably. Wu Xi didn’t look good at all up front.  Yu Dabao and Jin Jingdao seemed equally lost. The Taeguks made obvious to the whole world how easy it is to exploit the rather narrow Chinese shape. Zhang Xuri, Zeng Zhi, and Zhang Zengdong played most of the match so far inward. Acres of inviting open space on the flanks throughout. 

Bookie couldn’t figure out whether Zhang Linpeng or Liu Yiming occupied the fullback position. Confusion abounded. No consistency in the defensive ranks. Ultimately, all attempts to absorb the Korean attack badly miscarried. Xuri and Chengdong had to rush back all too frequently and ultimately succumbed to frustration. 

I now think I’ve accorded Lippi too much credit. Rather than playing it close to the vest, it appears as if he’s just playing hothand. Instruction and discipline continued to deteriorate after Gao Lin’s introduction in the 61stand Yu Hanchao’s sub in in the 74th. No discernable strategy emerges.  

Disarray in the War Elephant camp may end up bailing them out. Kraisorn, Chaided, Dangda continue to underperform in unnatural positions. Songkrasin’s form improves, but very at much at the expense of the other three. After two great matches, Tristan Do suddenly tanked on the left flank. Bunmathan also ran out of gas on the right and Keserat dipped sharply.

Pansa returns from suspension, but now Thongsong is out. Chuonsee is eligible to return, but Dechmitr is done. Ugh. It’s a right mess for a first-time coach. Bookie attempts to fix it below via a highly ambitious 5-3-2 that features…no….not fucking Pokklaw, but Chattong. 

I actually rather like the arrangement. Kraisorn and Dangda are afforded some space up front. Kesarat moves back where he can focus more on shoring up the defense. The fullbacks return to their natural positions where they can link up easily with very talented wingers. It’s doubtful that we’ll see something similar on the pitch, but surely Yodyardthai can find some way of exploiting the massive gaps Lippi’s contracted formation accords.

A tough one to handicap given all the uncertainty. Bookie’s going to roll with his instinct regardless. Lippi’s aged corps put on a much better show, but eventually lose their scalp.


Projected Lineups:

 “The War Elephants” (5-3-2) 

         Adisak Kraisorn        Teerasil Dangda                  
  S. Chaided        C. Songkrasin      S. Chattong                
                            T. Puangchan             
T. Bunmathan        T. Kesarat             Tristan Do            
                            P. Hemviboon
                     Siwarak Tedsubngnoen

 “Team Dragon” (3-5-2) 

               Gao Lin    Yu Dabao                 
 Jin Jingdao                                 Wu Xi                  
     Liu Yang   Zheng Zhi    Wei Shihao  
             Shi Ke            Liu Yiming
                    Feng Xiaoting
                     Yan Junming

Prop Bets (as always, feel free to offer your own)

Over/Under—4 Goals 
120 Minutes—2 to 1
Penalty Shootout—3 to 1

Hao Junmin Start—Straight Up
Feng Xiaoting booking—Straight Up
Pokklaw start—Straight Up
Chaided Goal—Straight Up

THE LINE: Thailand +1 Goal

Iran vs. Oman


If the Omani Reds can play anywhere near the level displayed in the final twenty minutes of their final group stage fixture, we’d have a potential upset here. They broke forward with astounding tenacity as they piled the pressure on. Super sweet acrobatics from both Al-Ghassanis. Bookie still hasn’t figured out whether Muhsen and Mohammed are actually brothers, but one might as well call them kin after we saw some both execute kick-ass control-volley-tricycles within minutes of one another. The boys from “La Samba Al-Khaleej” ride in red hot.

No shortage of negative talking points for Team Melli after that lackluster effort against Iraq. Ghoddos not only failed to continue his fine run of form, he also delivered a disconcertingly unsportsmanlike challenge that should have seen him sent off. Bookie retracts his glowing paean from the previous post after watching that despicable foul.

Azmoun didn’t play well at all, spurning way too many easy chances. Jahanbakhsh looked rusty and off in his return. Kanaanizadegan was a flop in midfield. Cheshmi and Milad Mohammadi were duds. Obrahimi, Amiri, and Hosseini all lost form. Even Ashkan Dejagah amateurishly screwed up a late set piece. Many of Queiroz’s top men simply had an “off day”. 

None of this serves as much cause for concern considering Taremi and Torabi were both good after coming on. Alireza Beiranvand is as in the zone as ever. Pouraliganji and Hajsafi will surely benefit from a day off. Rezaeian is rested and ready as well. Montazeri could even be plugged into the defensive set-up without much of a care for them missing the beat. The Persian Princes have yet to concede and they might well get another clean sheet here. 

Not much the Muscats can do to give the favorites trouble here. Ahmed Kano and Raeed Ibrahim Saleh surely find themselves exhausted after logging 270+ minutes apiece. The back four have also gone hard over full minutes. Only Al-Braiki obtained a small breather. 

Two days off won’t prove nearly enough for this crew. Al-Hajri, Al-Yahmadi, and Al-Yahyaei aren’t nearly good enough to slay the giants, and everyone else isn’t at full strength.

Queiroz’s men march on toward a predicted final against South Korea.  

Projected Lineups:

 “Team Melli” (4-5-1) 

                           Sardar Azmoun         
Mehdi Taremi    A. Jahanbakhsh      Mehdi Torabi                  
                Vahid Amiri    Ashkan Dejagah   
Ehsan Hajsafi                                Voria Ghafouri 
               M. Pouraliganji     R. Rezaeian
                        Alireza Beiranvand

 “Muscat Red” (4-4-2) 

               Mu. Al-Ghassani    Ahmed Kano
   Raeed Ibrahim Saleh                 Jameel Al-Yamadi                
                   Khalid Al-Hajri   Harib Al-Saadi
 Ali Al-Busaidi                                   Saad Al-Mukhaini  
                   K. Al-Braiki  M. Al-Musalami
                              Faiz Al-Rushaidi

Prop Bets (as always, feel free to offer your own)

Over/Under—3 Goals 
120 Minutes—3 to 1
Penalty Shootout—4 to 1

Azmoun brace—Straight Up
Dejagah goal—Straight Up
Mo. Al-Ghassani Start—2 to 1
Al-Braiki booking—Straight Up

THE LINE: Iran +2 Goals

Monday, January 21st    

Japan vs. Saudi Arabia


The first major clash pits two of the top-seeding group teams against one another. The Saudis find themselves here by virtue of their most unexpected 0-2 defeat to Qatar. Bookie would obviously be over the moon to see a team that elicits a regular grumble from him eliminated here. Unfortunately, the Green Falcons aren’t as weak as their most recent fixture might suggest. One cannot write them off so easily against a Samurai squad struggling mightily with their identity.

Despite poor crossing and some defensive lapses, Juan Antonio Pizzi’s men bested their opponents in every statistical area. The short passing game in particular remained strong. Another top-class performance from Fahad Al-Muwallad, who came within a hair’s breadth of scoring twice and should have been awarded a penalty after being rugby tackled in the box. Bahebri and Otayf put together strong efforts. Al-Owais was amazing on that elfmeter save.

Most of the lateral issues stemmed from the Al-Dawsari suspension. Bahebri and Al-Mogahwi moved inward to accommodate Ghareeb and Al-Shehri on the forward flanks. Suffice to say this adjustment killed off any real threat from the wings. The Qataris didn’t have to work terribly hard to block crosses from those two. Matters will improve once they return to their regular set-up. 

Criticism of the back four is somewhat misplaced. Almoez Ali looked a touch offside when he received the through ball for that opening goal. One can hardly blame Al-Fatil and Al-Bulaihi for freezing and looking towards the linesman. They didn’t pick him up on the second goal, but otherwise competed well aerially. 

A solid come-from-behind victory for the Samurai, but it’s difficult to see Moriyasu’s eleven operating with any chemistry after he made NINE changes to the side in the final group stage match. The bookie certainly advocated some alterations after they looked less than convincing in their first two wins, but it looks like he went overboard. Too many selection dilemmas might over-complicate his prep work. Your friendly bookie knows a little something about that ; ) 

Of course one can’t discount a side that took maximum points from their fixtures. We’ll attempt to build a competitive set of starters out of what’s been presented thus far and see how they stack up. I don’t think see Takashi Inui again. Bookie honestly had no idea a late injury enabled him to sneak onto the roster. He faded completely from view after an early effort. Haraguchi thus captains the midfield, flanked by Doan and Ito.

Kitigawa showed some menace on the turn early, but otherwise showed no real ability to make his presence known. Hence, I’ll deploy both Muto and Osako up front to lend the attack as much height as possible. Thirty-year-old rookie Tsukasa Shiotani serves as the defensive midfield anchor. The Al-Ain defender, who had only been capped twice prior to this tournament, justified his selection with that absolute screamer in the 58th. He keeps his starting place, but mostly stays back with the defense.

Sei Muroya also keeps his place for his hard work on the right and millimeter perfect cross. Aoyama, Sasaki, Makino, and “Gaijin Goalkeeper” Schumitto all yield back to the regulars. Bookie builds a winner, but is it enough. I somehow don’t think so ; ( 

Grrr….these damn Saudis. We’ll get them next round.  

Projected Lineups:

 “Samurai Blue” (4-1-3-2) 

              Yuya Osako     Yoshinori Muto               
Ritsu Doan     Genki Haraguchi      Junya Ito                     
                       Tsukasa Shiotani 
Yuto Nagatomo                             Sei Muroya              
              Maya Yoshida    Hiroki Sakai
                         Shuichi Gonda

  “The Green Falcons” (4-5-1) 

                          Fahad Al-Muwallad 
Hosein Al-Mogahwi                      Hattan Bahebri      
         Abdulaziz Al-Bishi  Salem Al-Dawsari  
                            Abdullah Otayf 
Y. Al-Shahrani M. Al-Fatil  A. Al-Bulaihi H. Al-Shamrani      
                         Mohammed Al-Owais

Prop Bets (as always, feel free to offer your own)

Over/Under—4 Goals 
120 Minutes—2 to 1
Penalty Shootout—3 to 1

Muto start—Straight Up
Osako brace—3 to 1
Al-Briek start—Straight Up
Al-Muwallad brace—Straight Up

THE LINE: Saudi Arabia +1 Goal

Australia vs. Uzbekistan


Dammit. Didn’t plan on this. My beloved White Wolves have their work cut out for them here, even against an Aussie side that stumbled out of the gate. We saw a bit of the ultra-slick passing moves that catapulted my anointed sleepers to a top-five-ranking last round against the Japanese. Nevertheless, the Samurai reserves were eventually able to effectively shut down the whole scheme. 

Shukorov, Sidikov, and Musaev got beat far too often. Alibaev and Khamdamov were easily torched when they found themselves in position and too often got caught out of it. While the latter did deliver the through ball that led to Shomurodov’s goal, the one moment of brilliance shown by Hector Cuper’s men was very much a solo effort on the part of the Rostov phenom. The whole team dynamic collapsed as the wolves could barely muster anything resembling a comeback. 

As tempting as it is to blame the Uzbek decline on Hector Cuper’s five changes, one must take into account that three of them were just defensive rotations. Play will improve with Ahmedov and Marshipov back in attack, but the regulars on the right look far less competent in this oddsmakers eyes. Problems at the back too as Krimits was a bust in his return. Zoteev and Shorakmedov may have to switch positions in order to fortify.

The Aussies appear to have finally woken up. Luongo improved measurably in his return. Irvine settles in alongside him slowly but surely. Rogic turned in a beast of a performance in midfield, capped with that laser of a goal in injury time. He’s really heating up. Milligan, the controversial handball notwithstanding, finally looked comfortable back at his regular position. Rhyan Grant claims the starting right back role after charring his flank with blazing moves. Both fullbacks play sharp.

Much of the talk with respect to the Socceroos centers around whether Maclaren has lost his job at the top. Bookie considers the whole issue immaterial. His double effort in the 36th shows he can score if placed there. Only heroic goalkeeping kept him out. Should Arnold which to opt for a different approach, Mabil and Ikonomidas are in fiery form. Christ, those guys are good. Mabil’s inside cut and fierce finish show he’s ready for prime time. Giannou, who provided some of his own fireworks in relief, constitutes another option.

With everyone in first-rate form and Awer set to break-out, it looks like the once-heralded sleepers find themselves headed for an early exit. Might hear a thing or two more from Shomurodov, but Sainsbury, Milligan, and Ryan should be able to control him. Keep a close eye on Mabil. He’s more than just a feel-good story. That’s one resilient kid. Can’t wait to see his intriguing goal celebration again. ; )  

Projected Lineups:

  “The Socceroos” (4-2-3-1) 

                        Jaime Maclaren
C. Ikonomidas    Tom Rogic        Awer Mabil                  
         Massimo Luongo   Jackson Irvine     
  Aziz Behich                          Rhyan Grant
           Mark Milligan  Trent Sainsbury
                         Matthew Ryan

 “The White Wolves” (4-2-3-1) 

                     Eldor Shomurodov   
 J. Masharipov   J. Sidikov         O. Shukurov                 
             O. Ahmedov   D. Khamdamov
 Oleg Zoteev                      A. Shorakmedov
            Igor Krimits     Anzur Ismailov
                       Ignatiy Nesterov         

Prop Bets (as always, feel free to offer your own)

Over/Under—4 Goals 
120 Minutes—2 to1 
Penalty Shootout—3 to 1

Mabil brace—Straight Up
Behich crusher—Straight Up
Marsharipov goal—Straight Up
Krimits booking—2 to 1

THE LINE: Australia +2 Goals

U.A.E. vs. Kyrgyzstan


Bookie never wavered in his belief that the Kyrgyzs would attain the knockouts. Even after two unequivocally lousy performances, I knew they had enough talent to bounce back in spectacular fashion. Krestinin finally arrived at his best lineup: a nifty 3-5-2 with Murzaev deployed at short striker behind Vitalij Lix. Sagynbaev slotted just behind as far left as the touchline. Uulu moved all the way up to the right wing, Bernhardt dropped back along with Israilov, and Iusupov captained the shorter defensive line. A lethal arrangement that worked to perfection.

All that being said, a match against the awful Azkhals can make just about any manager look like a genius. He’ll have to come up with something quite different should the White Falcons wish to stand a chance against the hosts. A three-man defensive front won’t work against Mabkhout. Uulu doesn't match up well against any of the Emirati wingers and Bernhardt can’t hope to exhibit the same dominance against Khalfan.

Your friendly bookie gives it the old “college try” below. Bernhardt and Uulu get buried deep in a protective 4-5-1 specifically designed only to poach for counters. Murzaev is dropped as they shell up and hope for the best. There exist better options than Israilov up high. A start for Murzaev, Zemalianukhin or Batyrkanov would signal more attacking intent. Krestinin surely wishes he had Viktor Maier in his kader right about now. 

Zaccheroni’s side should prevail easily in spite of their disappointing draw against the Thais. No shortage of failed moves from the trainer in the previous round. He tested out Bandar in midfield to little avail. Khalfan roved still more, but it didn’t produce anything of note. To my eyes it looked like Hassan and Al-Hammadi kept switching fields, though it was really difficult to tell. In any event neither did great offensively.

Moving Khalifa Ghanim over to fullback worked well, but Mohammed Ahmed couldn’t handle the centerback role. Most of the good defensive work came from Salmeen and Hassan tracking back. One finally understands why Khalil isn’t starting. He did a very poor job in relief. Bookie also caught him limping a bit after that sorry ass free kick late-on. Could be the case that he’s hurt. 

None of this should matter as Zaccheroni will likely pick the right results after all this experimentation. Khalifa to center. Bandar back out wide. Hassan to defensive ranks. Amer, Esmaeel, and Al-Hammadi back set. Bookie predicts an exciting late win once the Kyrgyz defense gets worn down.

Projected Lineups:

  “Zayed’s Sons” (4-2-3-1) 

                            Ali Mabkhout       
K. Esmaeel      Khalfan Mubarak    I. Al-Hammadi                     
             Ali Salmeen A. Abdulrahman   
Majed Hassan                             B.M. Al-Ahbabi         
                Fares Juma   Khalifa M. Ghanim
                              Khalid Eisa

 “The White Falcons” (4-5-1) 

                          Vitalij Lux
 B. Sagnynbaev                      A. Israilov                  
           A. Sydykov         F. Musabekov
                      Edgar Bernhardt
V. Kichin   T. Kozubaev D. Tagoe    K.Z. Uulu       
                       K. Kadrybekov

Prop Bets (as always, feel free to offer your own)

Over/Under—3 Goals 
120 Minutes—Straight Up
Penalty Shootout—2 to 1

Khalil start—2 to 1
Mubarak brace—2 to 1
Kadrybekov howler—Straight Up
Bernhardt goal—2 to 1

THE LINE: U.A.E. +1 Goal

Tuesday, January 22nd     

South Korea vs. Bahrain


Nothing substantial stands in the way of our Asian Tigers in their inexorable march toward the final. Now that Son Heung-Min has arrived, bookie merrily declares them invincible. The unstoppable Tottenham forward wasn’t even alive when Nina Simone performed one of her most memorable and adored ballads. Nevertheless, one couldn’t help but conjure up her sweet words whilst watching the Tottenham forward’s remarkable work on the pitch: “Here Comes the Son!”

A sizzling start for the captain, who wasted precious little time getting involved in the run-of-play. Inside of eight minutes he was already placing pinpoint passes directly onto the boots of Hwang Hee-Chan and Hwang Ui-Jo. It felt as if he had been playing alongside them for years.  Within 12 minutes he had already drawn a penalty. One simply can’t close him down unless one cheats. 

Before a quarter of the match had been completed he should have had a brace. Outstanding movement from inside the box in the 14th and 23rd. Only the crossbar denied him. After nearly setting up Lee Chung-Yong and Joo Woo-Young, he finally connected with Kim Min-Jae with that cutback in the 51st. He was involved in virtually every play as the Taeguks pushed forward relentlessly over the course of the full 90. Magnificent work from him on set-pieces too. 

Son’s mere presence frees up all five players who symmetrically surround him. Hwang In-Beom, the one player your friendly bookie hasn’t mentioned yet, also furnished a five-star performance. Smashing stuff from the fullbacks as well. So very glad to see Kim Moon-Hwan make the most of his chance on the right. Kim Jin-Su on the left proved a master stroke. 

Okay. In the interest of balance, we’ll have to work a few words about Bahrainis into this lovefest. Bookie owes Mohamed Marhoon, whom he pejoratively likened to a “bloody buffoon”, a most sincere apology. He played his heart out after coming off the bench against India. Ditto Abdulla Yusuf Helal, Sayed Dhiya Saeed, Ali Madan, and Kamil Al-Aswad. Was wondering when we’d see something from them. 

The Bahraini Reds finally find their groove with Jamal Rashid in the anchoring striker role, Sayeed Resa Isa at right back, and a plethora of fine options in attack. Building a lineup for them wasn’t exactly easy considering Al-Romaihi and Al-Huasaini are also in fine form. 

Were they facing any other team, I’d pick them for the Quarters. Against the Taeguks, they should get easily humbled. 

Projected Lineups:

  “The Taeguk Warriors” (4-2-3-1) 

                                    Hwang Ui-Jo      
Lee Chung-Yong      Son Heung-Min    Hwang Hee-Chan                
                Hwang In-Beom      Jung Woo-Young  
 Kim Jin-Su                                          Kim Moon-Hwan             
                     Kim Min-Jae      Kim Young-Gwon
                                 Kim Seung-Gyu

  “Al-Ahmar” (4-2-3-1) 

                       Abdulla Yusuf Helal
  S. D. Saeed         Jamal Rashid          Ali Madan
              K.H. Al-Aswad    M. Marhoon
 Ahmed Juma                                   Sayeed Resa Isa
             Waleed Al-Hayam   Sayed Baqer
                        Sayed Shubbar Alawi

Prop Bets (as always, feel free to offer your own)

Over/Under—4 Goals 
120 Minutes—2 to 1 
Penalty Shootout—3 to 1

Hwang Ui-Jo brace—Straight Up
Ji Dong-Won start—2 to 1
Marhoon Goal—2 to 1
Mo. Al-Romaihi start—Straight Up

THE LINE: South Korea +2 Goals

Qatar vs. Iraq


Probably the best offering of the round. Two radiant young teams square off. Players on both sides have already made tournament history. Mohanand Ali and Almoez Abdullah now fight for the privilege of making more. Only one will obtain more blank pages on which to write. The other faces the end of the book, and will likely fade from the scene as quickly as they burst upon it. An epic match up. 

If you happen to be just tuning into the festivities, you’ve missed an almost unbelievable start from Qatar’s Sudanese Sensation Almoez Abdullah Ali. The twenty-two-year-old scored SEVEN goals in THREE matches. No one can stop him on this record-breaking tear. With all of the chances he’s generated he could have netted as many as twelve tallies. At the very least he should have eight after one of his strikes got disallowed on an unforgiveable “ghost foul”.

Not to be outdone, eighteen-year-old Iraqi phenom Mohanad Ali has now racked up eight goals in only fourteen caps for his national eleven. The two tallies he’s registered in this competition may seem paltry when compared Almoez’s total, but he’s been in just as blistering form as his counterpart. Should the Lions make a deep run, there’s every indication that he can overtake.

Bookie looks beneath these stories to select his winner. Qatari trainer Felix Sanchez faces some serious issues not apparent to those who concentrate solely on the scoreline. For much of the first half against the Saudis, the entire right side looked a deplorable mess. Madibo and Al-Haydos couldn’t get anything going. Khouki routinely had to bail out Pedro. Bahebri, left unmolested on far too many occasions, nearly killed them off thrice. 

Set-piece defending has been very poor. Abdelkarim Hassan, the talismanic player Sanchez needs most to succeed, has taken a complete nosedive. The Asian footballer of the year can’t sort out his positioning, misses most of his tackles, and exhibits awful dribbling touch. Hatem, Khouki, and Salman keep getting burned. Bookie sees far too much choppy play and far too little creativity among the ranks. 

While the Lions didn’t exactly impress in the latest version of “Al-Classicah”, it appears they have a stronger and more stable approach. Tariq and Attwan don’t slip up with respect to their assignments. Bashar Resan and Safaa Hadi have been crisp and calm in their execution. Bookie also really likes the impact that players like Alaa Abbas and Mohammed Dawood can make off the bench. 

Some defensive issues need to be sorted out, but I largely think Rebin Sulaka and Ali Faez can close ranks effectively at the center. Also excited at the prospect of Hussein Ali and Fran Dhia Putros pairing together on the right. Seems to me that Katanec has many ways of driving nails into the loose plank that is the Qatari right.

The result may disappoint some. It won’t surprise the bookie.

Projected Lineups:

 “The Maroon Vinyls” (4-4-2) 

              Akram Afif      Almoez Abduallah             
Ahmed Alaaeldin                Hassan Al-Haydos                  
            Karim Boudiaf   Boualem Khouki       
 Abdelkarim Hassan                  Pedro Miguel             
              Tarek Salman  Bassam Al-Rawi
                           Saad Al Sheeb

 “The Lions of Mesopatamia” (4-2-3-1) 

                             Mohanad Ali 
Humam Tariq       Bashar Resan     Hussein Ali           
                 Safaa Hadi   Amjad Attwan
 Alaa Ali Mhawi                     Frans Dhia Putros
                 Rebin Sulaka        Ali Faez
                              Jalal Hassan       

Prop Bets (as always, feel free to offer your own)

Over/Under—4 Goals 
120 Minutes—Straight Up
Penalty Shootout—2 to 1

Ayman Hussein start—Straight Up
Mohanad Ali brace—2 to 1
Almoez brace—2 to 1
Abelkarim goal—Straight Up

THE LINE: Iraq +1 Goal