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Iran first into Asian Cup quarterfinals; Iraqis snatch last-gasp win

Karim Ansari Fard scores Iran's winning goal against North Korea at the Qatar Sports Club on Saturday.
Karim Ansari Fard scores Iran's winning goal against North Korea at the Qatar Sports Club on Saturday.
  • Three-time champions Iran beat North Korea to reach last eight at Asian Cup
  • Karim Ansari Fard's second-half winner puts Iran through ahead of final Group D match
  • North Korea need to beat defending champions Iraq in Wednesday's last game
  • Second-placed Iraq snatch last-gasp 1-0 win over United Arab Emirates in Saturday's other game

(CNN) -- Iran coach Afshin Ghotbi hailed his team after qualifying from the toughest group at the Asian Cup in Qatar, becoming the first team to reach the quarterfinals after beating North Korea on Saturday.

Iran, seeking a record fourth title but first since 1976, followed up the opening 2-1 win over defending champions Iraq with a 1-0 victory in Doha thanks to a second-half goal from Karim Ansari Fard to go through with a match to spare.

Iraq's chances of going through were boosted by a last-gasp 1-0 win over the United Arab Emirates in Saturday's second Group D fixture. The result left Iraq three points behind Iran on three, with North Korea and the U.A.E. on one.

"The qualification of our team, for me, is a fantastic accomplishment," Ghotbi, who moved to the U.S. in his teens and learned to coach there, told the Asian Cup website.

An ominous sign ahead of the 2022 World Cup?

Our group was the 'group of death' and I still believe it is the most difficult group in the tournament
--Iran coach Afshin Ghotbi
  • Iran
  • Iraq
  • United Arab Emirates
  • North Korea
  • Soccer

"Our group was the 'group of death' and I still believe it is the most difficult group in the tournament. To achieve this result two games in a row, I'm very proud of my players.

"Iran is capable of playing much better football. We will show that in the coming games. We will be fitter and more confident and hopefully you'll see much better performances from our team."

Ansari Fard, a 20-year-old striker, struck the winner in the 63rd minute from Pejman Nouri's cross after Iran struggled to break down the well-organized Korean defense.

"Playing North Korea is always difficult. They defend with numbers, they are organized, they are disciplined, they fight, they have pace and they are dangerous on the counter-attack," Ghotbi said.

Socceroos deny South Koreans

Korea's best chance came when Hong Yong-jo's shot shaved the crossbar in time added on, leaving his team needing to beat Iraq in Wednesday's final round of matches.

"The next match is very critical for our team to go for the knockout stage but we will try our best," Korea coach Jo Tong-sop said.

"In terms of the system, we converted to 4-4-2 and we combine attack and defense, and in this way we created new tactics for our team. For the next match, I think we have to again put the emphasis on defense and try to score goals on the counter-attack."

The U.A.E. seemed set to have earned a second successive goalless draw until an own-goal by defender Walid Abbas in the third minute of time added on gave Iraq a much-needed victory.

U.A.E. defender Hamdan Al Kamali headed against the post early on and striker Ahmed Khalil missed from close range, while Iraq hit the woodwork twice just before halftime through Nashat Akram and Qusay Muneer.

Khalil smashed a shot against the bar after the hour mark, but the unlucky Abbas decisively turned the ball into his own net in injury-time as he tried to cut out a cross from Iraq captain Younis Mahmoud.

"It was a little bit lucky but at the end of the day we tried our best to force our luck in the game," Iraq's German coach Wolfgang Sidka said.

"We had three strikers up front and I believe that we were rewarded. Sometimes if you have bad luck, you must force your luck to get it back. I believe that today we managed to force our own luck and we did it with a fighting spirit."

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