Ehsan Hajsafi struck with a sumptuous volley in first-half stoppage time to propel Iran to a 2-0 victory over Bahrain as the AFC Asian Cup 2015 favourites began with a bang. Iran, seeking to end a 39-year wait for a fourth title, effectively sealed the points in their Group C opener when Masoud Shojaei added a second in the 71st minute to end Bahrain's brave resistance in Melbourne.
Asia's top-ranked side, Iran almost opened the scoring after 20 minutes when the dangerous Ashkan Dejagah forced a smart stop from Sayed Abbas in the Bahrain goal. But Bahrain had already served notice that they were not about to simply roll over as their bulldozing Nigerian-born striker Jaycee Okwunwanne blazed just wide during the frenetic early skirmishes.
Sayed Shubbar then squandered a golden opportunity by heading over as Bahrain threatened to capitalise on a sluggish start from highly fancied Iran. However, Hajsafi produced a moment of magic with almost the last kick of the first half, expertly trapping a looping clearance with his left foot before instantaneously smashing it past Abbas with the outside of his right boot from just outside the box.
Okwunwanne almost emulated Hajsafi after the break with a ferocious drive that Iran goalkeeper Alireza Haghighi did brilliantly to keep out. But Shojaei popped up to steer a right-foot shot just inside the post from another corner to trigger wild celebrations from a crowd of 17,000 - most noisily supporting Team Melli.
Emeratis fight back
Earlier, United Arab Emirates stormed back from behind to defeat Gulf rivals Qatar 4-1 as they displayed their Asian Cup credentials with a fluent win. Top-rated midfielder Omar Abdulrahman was at his creative best as both Ahmed Khalil and Ali Mabkhout grabbed a brace after "Qatari Maradona" Khalfan Ibrahim put his side ahead.
Khalfan's deftly taken chest and volley proved Qatar's best moment as the 2022 FIFA World Cup hosts proved fragile at the back, with goalkeeper Qasem Burhan committing two costly blunders.
The Emiratis rued early misses when Ibrahim took a rebound on the chest and acrobatically lobbed goalkeeper Majed Naser to open the scoring after 22 minutes. Qatar grew in confidence and they almost went 2-0 up when left-back Abdelkarim Hassan drilled a powerful shot narrowly past the post.
However, UAE always looked dangerous through the trickery and imagination of Omar Abdulrahman, allied with qualifying top-scorer Makbhout and powerful targetman Khalil. And it was Khalil who grabbed the equaliser after 37 minutes after Omar Abdulrahman caused panic in the defence by twice stealing the ball down the right. Qatar failed to deal with the subsequent cross and after Khalil's powerful header was cleared off the line he knocked in the rebound to put UAE level eight minutes from half-time.
The goal buoyed UAE and they came flying out of the traps at the start of the second half, before going ahead seven minutes later. Goalkeeper Burhan reacted too late as Khalil's penetrating free-kick from the left edge of the box evaded everyone and sailed past into the far corner.
Four minutes later, Burhan again failed to deal with a setpiece and he palmed the ball to Mabkhout, who gratefully slotted it home for UAE's third. Qatar worked tirelessly to get back into the game and they hit the post with five minutes to go in what was their best spell of the game. But all-out attack left them exposed at the back and Omar Abdulrahman combined with Mabkhout to set up the prolific striker's second of the game on 89 minutes.