A genuine heavyweight contest awaits on Monday when three-time champions Iran meet record four-time winners Japan in the opening semi-final of Asian Cup 2019.
The former roared into the last four when they produced the tournament’s defining performance to date, a 3-0 humbling of China. In contrast, Samurai Blue required the help of the video-assistant referee to defeat emerging Vietnam 1-0 thanks to a Ritsu Doan penalty-kick.
Here are the talking points ahead of an engaging tie – billed as the competition’s true decider, with Qatar v UAE on the other side of the draw – at Al Ain’s magnificent Hazza bin Zayed Stadium:
WEIGHT OF HISTORY
Iran’s pained relationship with the Asian Cup is exemplified by the fact Japan have claimed a leading quartet of triumphs in the time since their last success – and with 16 years to spare.
Team Melli were victorious in every match they played from 1968-76.
Continental greats in 109-goal Ali Daei, magician Ali Karimi and the indefatigable Jalal Hosseini are among those to have been produced since. All have, perplexingly, failed to even make another Asian showpiece.
This gap is also keenly felt by head coach Carlos Queiroz. The Portuguese made history by securing successive entries to World Cups, but 2015’s epic quarter-final continental loss to Iraq is a black mark on his otherwise unprecedented eight-year reign.
Japan have not gone more than one running without overall victory since 1992.
A new generation has been groomed for success in the Emirates, led by winger Doan and centre-back Takehiro Tomiyasu.
The likes of Shinji Kagawa, Keisuke Honda and Makoto Hasebe either have retired or been snubbed, but aspirations of success remain.
Joy in the Emirates is billed as the perfect springboard to the Tokyo 2020 Olympics and World Cup 2022.
A cursory review of the nations’ records in the UAE points towards a tense contest at the Hazza.
Iran have become only one of three teams in the competition’s 63-year history to go through their first five matches without conceding. Japan – also unbeaten – have gone one step further and are now the only side to win five-successive games by a single-goal winning margin.
A noticeable difference between the World Cup regulars, however, emerged in the previous round.
Iran showed they possess another gear against China, notching 18 attempts on goal as the likes of Mehdi Taremi – banned for this clash – and four-goal Sardar Azmoun ran rampant.
They played at a tempo that staid Japan have not been able to exhibit.
Japan boss Hajime Moriyasu has operated a revolving-door policy up top.
Established Werder Bremen forward Yuya Osaka has nursed injury since scoring twice in the 3-2 opening win against Turkmenistan, Red Bull Salzburg’s Takumi Minamino’s finishing was comically bad in the 2-0 win against Oman and Yoshinori Muto scored against Uzbekistan and then got suspended.
Consistency, however, has been key for Iran. Azmoun’s combination of elite hold-up play and ruthless finishing makes him irreplaceable.
The decision to convince the 24-year-old to renege on his retirement after a disappointing World Cup could make the difference for them against Japan – and the tournament at large.
South Korea head coach Paulo Bento insisted his charges paid the price for not turning supremacy into goals after their shock quarter-final exit at Asian Cup 2019.
The Taegeuk Warriors were expected to see off Qatar at Zayed Sports City. But a team that contained Tottenham star Son Heung-min failed to find a way through and Abdelaziz Hatim’s stunning low strike on 78 minutes from distance ultimately sealed a 1-0 win.
“The game was a balanced one and we tried [throughout] to control and dominate the match as we had done previously in the tournament,” the ex-Portugal tactician told reporters, according to the-afc.com.
“When I look back at the 90 minutes we did not create too many chances, but even that was still more than our opponents managed. After the goal, we struck the post and before that we also had chances.
“In our previous games, the margin of our victories were perhaps not as convincing as our general play suggested they should have been. I would agree that we were not as effective as we could have been.
“We were eliminated because we were not as efficient in converting our chances as we should have been.”
Injuries took their toll on a side that defeated holders Germany at World Cup 2018. Newcastle United veteran Ki Sung-yueng was among those sidelined throughout the tournament.
VfL Bochum winger Lee Chung-yong was left frustrated after Korea’s latest attempt to end 59 years of hurt in the Asian Cup ended in defeat.
He said: “I am really sorry for the result. I expected a lot from this tournament and thought we would be in a higher position than we now are.
“I feel responsible for it. As a veteran player, I feel very responsible for not leading the team well, but I hope that the Korean football team will be stronger through these matches.
“Our coach struggled to manage the team because there were several players injured.”
A home nation has started to believe.
Hosts the UAE stunned holders Australia after Ali Mabkhout gratefully accepted a gift from Milos Degenek, sending the former through to Asian Cup 2019’s semi-finals with a surprise 1-0 victory.
Buoyed by a cauldron atmosphere at Hazza bin Zayed Stadium, the Socceroos dominated possession and attempts on goal against the side they defeated in 2015’s last-four.
But their inaccuracy at both ends on Friday night proved critical when Al Hilal new boy Degenek’s shocking back pass under pressure from substitute Mohamed Abdulrahman allowed the previous edition’s top scorer, Mabkhout, to round goalkeeper Mathew Ryan and slot into an open goal on 68 minutes.
Alberto Zaccheroni’s Whites then defiantly held out, even after 10 minutes of added time. Here is the state of play ahead of their meeting with Qatar on Tuesday at Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium:
HOW THEY’VE GOT HERE
Zaccheroni’s pedigree as a Serie A winner with AC Milan in 1998/99 and, more pertinently, an Asian Cup champion with Japan eight years ago saw him selected in October 2017 as the man to lead the Whites out from the ashes of their failed World Cup 2018 qualifying campaign.
Results, however, were not promising from the off.
These included an opening 1-0 friendly loss to Haiti and controversial penalty shootout reversal to Oman in last January’s Gulf Cup showpiece, that was presaged by star duo Omar Abdulrahman and Mabkhout breaking curfew. A 2-0 defeat in their final Asian Cup tune-up against Kuwait ensured they came in with a record of just six wins from 18 matches under him, with a paltry 10 goals scored.
In the competition itself, the Whites required an 88th-minute penalty in the opener to draw 1-1 with Bahrain, plus were outplayed for long spells by India in a 2-0 win and Thailand in a 1-1 draw. Their tally of five points was enough to top Group A, but would have only been good enough for third in every other one.
Competition debutants Kyrgyzstan then pushed them into extra time, prior to Ahmed Khalil’s second clincher from the spot.
Against the Socceroos, depleted by playmaker Tom Rogic’s suspension, they ceded 64 per cent of possession and allowed 22 attempts on goal. But Degenek erred and Mabkhout pounced.
WAS IT LUCKY, THEN?
The statistics say ‘yes’, but reality was somewhat different.
Zaccheroni’s five changes and switch to a 4-2-3-1 formation included the injection of energy from outstanding centre midfielder Majed Hassan.
With the adventurous Bandar Al Ahbabi pushed up to right wing, plus centre-backs Ismail Ahmed and – concussion aside – Fares Juma in redoubtable mood, the UAE ceded few chances of note.
Australia’s tally of two accurate attempts from 22 shows how the UAE restricted them, largely, to pot shots. When forward Apostolos Giannou found goalkeeper Khalid Essa’s bottom corner past the hour mark, substitute Mathew Leckie was rightly adjudged to have been offside in the build-up.
A siege was expected after Mabkhout’s astute finish – a goal that made him the Asian Cup’s joint-third overall highest scorer with nine goals from 11 appearances. But the UAE held them off with relative ease, knocking out the holders in the quarters for the second-successive running after Japan in 2015.
WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?
The UAE’s two clean sheets in 2019 is as many as they have had in their previous four tournaments combined.
Defence is the foundation Zaccheroni must build up from. Especially with superstar playmaker Omar Abdulrahman out of the competition through injury and restricted to being a cheerleader from the stands.
If Juma and fellow injury victim Mohamed Ahmed do not recover for the Qatar clash, the poise of 20-year-old utility defender Khalifa Al Hammadi was staggering as an early substitute against the Socceroos.
At the other end of the age scale, veteran Walid Abbas let nobody down at left-back during his first minutes of the tournament.
An intriguing tactical clash awaits against Qatar, who have outscored the UAE by 12-8 in the last three weeks.
Both undefeated sides love to pounce on the counter. Both pulled off upsets in the last eight – Son Heung-min’s South Korea fell to Al Annabi.
Something will have to give at MBZ.