QATAR: When Jordan lost 6-1 to Japan just days before the Asian Cup kicked off, few would have expected Al-Nashama would still be fighting in the tournament and the Samurai Blue would be sent home.
That is a tribute to the job done by coach Hussein Ammouta and his group of players, leaving Jordan and Qatar the last Arab teams left standing in both African and Asian Cups semifinals.
Now they are 90 minutes away from the final, having never progressed beyond the quarterfinals before.
South Korea stand in their way but there is no fear, especially as the East Asians needed a last-minute own goal to get a 2-2 draw against Jordan in the second game of the group stage.
“We know that it is going to be a difficult game for us,” Ammouta said. “When you face stronger teams, you also shouldn’t be too fearful of them, because that also impacts the players negatively, we have to respect every team and have confidence in our ability to punish every team we face.”
The 3-2 victory over Iraq in the second round had people at home believing after two goals in added time secured a famous win.
Then there was a solid 1-0 result against Tajikistan in the last eight. Next is arguably the biggest game in Jordan’s history.
The Moroccan coach has won continental titles with both club and country in Africa and that experience should stand Jordan in good stead as they have now gone further than ever before in the Asian Cup, beating the quarterfinal stage reached in 2004 and 2011.
“When you reach a semifinal in any tournament then you know that you have going to face a very difficult opponent,” Ammouta reportedly said. “South Korea are a very strong team and are full of excellent players. We are looking forward to the challenge.”
In the meeting that took place just over two weeks ago, the Koreans struggled to deal with the mobile Jordanian forwards and the speedy counterattacks. That is what Ammouta, a quiet and brooding presence on the sidelines, has been doing since taking the job in June. Jordan have traditionally been seen as a defensive and slightly dour team that has been able to grind out results in the past, especially at home. There is no team in Asia that relishes going to Amman in need of a result.
Jordan still have that solid defensive base but are much more dangerous, determined and mobile in attack. Anas Bani Yaseen is the veteran defender at the back and talked of the poor results in the build-up to the tournament. Jordan won just one of the previous nine games before beating Malaysia 4-0 in the Asian Cup opener, and how the team have bounced back.
“We had difficulties in the friendly matches in which we played recently,” said the 35-year-old. “We played several matches and lost them all and the last of those was against Japan with a big scoreline. The smartest people are those who learn from these lessons and that is what we have done as a team. We have overcome our problems and now we are achieving something we have never achieved before.”
Jordan will be without two suspended players in the semifinal. Defender Salem Al-Ajalin and striker Ali Olwan both were booked in the win over Tajikistan and will only play again in the tournament if Korea are defeated.
Star man Mousa Taamari also picked up an injury but, thankfully for Ammouta, it looks as if the Montpellier winger will be fit for the semifinal.
His style has earned comparisons with Lionel Messi and Mohamed Salah but he bristles at such comments. “I am my own player,” he said earlier in the tournament. “I am Mousa Taamari.”
The Taeguk Warriors have absences of their own. Bayern Munich defender Kim Min-jae, who was named as the best defender in Italy last season for his heroics in helping Napoli to the Serie A title is suspended. Korea are also without Al-Shabab goalkeeper Kim Seung-gyu, with an injury that will also keep him out of the rest of the Saudi Arabia season.
Son Heung-min has already scored three goals with his best coming with a spectacular free-kick that eliminated Australia in the quarterfinals.
Hwang Hee-chan missed the meeting with Jordan in the group stage but the Wolverhampton Wanderers star has returned and looked very dangerous indeed. Lee Kang-in, the Paris Saint-Germain star, has also shone.
Jordan will need all the help they can get but they have already shown that nothing is impossible. Many are expecting a South Korea final against Iran but it could be an all-Arab affair between Qatar and Jordan.