World Club Cup: Sepahan (Iran) 3-1 Waitakere United (New Zealand)

A clarifying thought came to me as I saw Waitakere United’s Jason Hayne come on for Christopher Bale somewhere around the 60th minute.  When you’re part of team to whom fell the misfortune of demonstrating the gap between professionals and part-timers, well, what do you have to lose?  Go out there loose, get a high from playing against people on a higher level in front of thousands, and just…play.  This is supposed to be fun, dammit.

Hayne’s substitution came ten minutes or so after Iran’s Sepahan scored its third, and final, goal on their way to a 3-1 win.  Abudl Wahab Abu Al Hail put a sliced, outward curve on the long-range shot, which made a slow-rolling mockery of the Waitakere ‘keeper’s decision to try to catch it.  The irony of that particular moment grew from the fact that, if forced to choose between the two ‘keepers on the field – Waitakere’s Simon Eaddy and Sepahan’s Mohammad Savari – I would go with Eaddy in a heartbeat…that precise moment excepted, of course.

In goal was just about the only spot on the field where Waitakere enjoyed an advantage.  The Iranian side passed more crisply, moved smarter off the ball and found a couple ways around – or, worse, through – the New Zealanders’ (hereafter, Kiwis) back line.  Forget the final score for a second; a more relevant statistic appeared during the first half, when my TV told me that Sepahan enjoyed a 71-to-29% advantage in possession.  Even with the game ending on a more equitable 66-to-34 breakdown, that edge proved more telling than usual.  Waitakere continually gave away the ball or, where their key forward, Benjamin Totori, was concerned, dribbled into dead-ends.

Given that, the late rally the New Zealanders (hereafter, Kiwis) put together seems a little more impressive.  Doubly impressive, in fact, given that they were part-timers going against full pros; normally, one would expect the professionals to gain the advantage as the game wears on.  This goes back to my theory that the Kiwis decided to make their one-game on the global stage more about getting kicks than getting results.  Whatever happened, they got forward more and, hence, around Sepahan’s back line a couple times – most notably when Totori found some use for his soloist’s skills.

The Kiwis’ goal, when it finally did come, came from the pressure and by mistake.  At least one sign came before: Savari, looked jittery on the few half-chances (no…quarter?  eighth?) Waitakere launched toward (only in the loosest sense) goal; crosses seemed to particularly test him.  When the ball bounced off a Sepahan defender – Hadi Aghily as it happened – Savari got a hand to it before it slipped between his hands and off his face into the goal.  As I saw it, Aghily got screwed when the officials credited him with the own-goal.   So, Savari in goal is one thing to look for when Sepahan meets Urawa Red Diamonds of Japan in next Monday’s quarterfinal.

A couple other things stood out the Sepahan attack.  Short, lobbed passes, over the top and up the middle, led to their first two goals, both of which came before the five-minute mark.  Iraqi striker Emad Mohammed scored both, the second of them a neat little trick from a tight angle AND off the outside of his foot; he’s clearly a key point in the attack (and, in a stroke a linguistic insight, I knew Al-Hail was the team’s “other Iraqi” when I first saw his name).  Once Waitakere’s defense settled, this ball stopped working.  From that point, long, cross-field diagonal balls served as Sepahan’s chief path into Waitakere’s defensive third, but these didn’t do them much good as they don’t seem all that comfortable playing in crosses (or, for the record, defending them, either).  They also tried a few through-balls on the ground and up the gut, but Waitakere’s defenders had little trouble cutting these out.  As often as not, then, Sepahan would work the ball in from the flank, to a point just in front of the Kiwis’ defensive line – where it would typically bounce around and fizzle.

Those shortcomings aside, Sepahan did about a dozen things better than the eleven Kiwi part-timers pitted against them (e.g. passing, first touch, decision-making, both in speed and quality, etc.).  So, this (very early) morning’s win was somewhat inevitable.  Against that, I haven’t yet seen Urawa Red Diamonds in action, but based on what I unders of Japanese soccer – specifically, it’s frenetic speed and sound technical level – Sepahan has their work cut out in the quarterfinals.

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