Asian Cup glory will be on the line this Friday when record four-time champions Japan meet first-time finalists Qatar at Zayed Sports City.
After 50 matches contested by a record 24-nation field in the UAE, both teams have emerged to contest the showpiece. Samurai Blue’s new breed have gradually gained momentum throughout the event and come in as favourites, though an opponent spearheaded by history chasing, eight-goal striker Almoez Ali could cause difficulties.
Here are the talking points ahead of the anticipated clash:
ATTACK V DEFENCE
Football is a team game, but individual battles always matter.
Japan centre-back Takehiro Tomiyasu and Qatar striker Ali are both barely out of their teens. Their influences, however, vastly outweigh their relative lack of international experience.
Tomiyasu was picked in defensive midfield for the shaky opening 3-2 win against Turkmenistan. This experiment was swiftly abandoned, with Tomiyasu returning to his usual position of centre-back.
In the four starts that followed for the effortlessly composed 20-year-old, no further goals were conceded by Samurai Blue.
Most impressively, the Sint-Truiden defender’s seventh senior cap saw him mix it with physical Iran striker Sardar Azmoun and come out as the clear winner during the 3-0 victory.
A different proposition awaits him against 22-year-old Ali.
The Al Duhail forward’s searing pace and ruthless finishing has been on full show in the Emirates. A ‘super hat-trick’ against North Korea and brace versus Saudi Arabia stands as highlights from an eight-goal haul that puts him level with Iran icon Ali Daei as the record scorer from an individual Asian Cup.
His placed shot that cannoned in off the post in his side’s semi-final win was his first since the group stage. Force home another on Friday and Qatar’s name could be on the Cup.
Japan and Qatar might have won their last-four ties by a combined score of 7-0, but goals should be at a premium in the capital.
The Samurai Blue made history at this running by winning five-successive matches by a one-goal margin. Their low-octane approach under Hajime Moriyasu reached its zenith in the round of 16 against Saudi Arabia when a 1-0 victory was earned with just 23-per-cent possession.
Qatar are also a measured outfit, who are ruthless on the counter-attack.
At the other end, goalkeeper Saad Al Sheeb has faced just 10 shots on target on his way to a remarkable six clean sheets from six matches.
Extra time and penalties cannot be ruled out.
A rivalry could be emerging that defines Asian football for years to come.
Japan’s standing as a breeding ground for outstanding talent has grown, exponentially, since 1992’s first continental victory.
From the breakthrough witnessed by Kazuyoshi Miura’s compatriots, then debut World Cup qualifications experienced with Hidetoshi Nakata and consolidation under Makoto Hasebe and Co.
A clean sweep followed World Cup 2018’s run to the round of 16, with Shinji Kagawa and Keisuke Honda among those to drop away. Supremacy in the UAE by Ritsu Doan, Tomiyasu and their cohorts will solidify the latest batch’s ascension.
Only South Korea have been able to match their consistent ability to produce premium players in Asia. That is, until now.
Doha’s Aspire Academy appears to have, finally, borne fruit.
Under long-term mentor Felix Sanchez, Qatar are yet to concede in the Emirates and are top scorers with 16 goals.
2018 AFC Player of the Year Abdelkarim Hassan and Villarreal-owned forward Akram Afif – he has a leading nine assists in the UAE – are among those to provide able support to Ali.
Triumph on Friday and a formative test will have been passed on the way to hosting World Cup 2022.
Maya Yoshida has led Japan into a fifth Asian Cup final since 1992, but insists the continental giants have to be crowned champions otherwise it “means nothing”.
The Samurai Blue put Iran to the sword in Al Ain, Yuya Osako netting a quickfire brace either side of the hour mark before Genki Haraguchi rounded off a flattering 3-0 victory in stoppage time.
Japan are record four-time winners of the Asian Cup and are looking to extend that to five in Friday’s final where they will take on Qatar.
They have earned all of their continental wins inside the last 27 years and their latest final appearance will be their fifth in the last eight editions of the tournament, an unprecedented feat.
Yet, progression to the showpiece means nothing unless they are victorious, declares the stalwart centre-back.
“That’s what everyone expects from us,” said Southampton centre-back Yoshida when asked about his side’s progress after the game.
最高の勝利！— Yuto Nagatomo | 長友佑都 (@YutoNagatomo5) 28 January 2019
We are Japan 💪💪🇯🇵
Great victory 👍 pic.twitter.com/W5aD0as9gW
He said: “We have to be champions. We have to win every time in Asia.
“Four years ago we had a huge disappointment (Japan were beaten by the UAE in the quarter-finals). If we lose (the final) it means nothing. We have to be in the final and we have to be champions.”
In a tense and tight game in the Garden City, Hajime Moriyasu’s men went ahead in fortuitous circumstances in the 56th minute, Takumi Minamino going to ground easily in an attempt to win a free-kick.
But as the Iran players stopped, believing Australian referee Chris Beath would award them a free-kick, the Red Bull Salzburg forward rapidly picked himself up and kept the ball in play. He then delivered a fine cross for Werder Bremen striker Osako to head home.
It was a body blow to Team Melli, who then conceded a penalty 10 minutes later when Minamino’s cut-back struck the rash Morteza Pouraliganji on the arm as he slid in needlessly.
And Yoshida admitted the Samurai Blue were ruthless and showed a cutting edge when Iran were vulnerable.
“I think their intensity dropped a little bit in the second half and we knew that,” added the 30-year-old.
“We were very well organised and scored the first goal, and after that they missed the organisation. They left many gaps between the players, that’s our favourite way of playing and after we scored they took some risks up front and we counter-attacked and scored again.”
The skipper was also warm in his praise of the man alongside him in Japan’s backline – Takehiro Tomiyasu. The 20-year-old, who was also imperious in the tense 1-0 round of 16 triumph over Saudi Arabia, is the joint youngest player in Moriyasu’s new, youthful squad, and was winning just his eighth cap in Al Ain.
“He’s been on form throughout the tournament to be honest,” said Yoshida of the youngster, who plays in Belgium’s top flight with Sint-Truiden.
“Tom’s at that age where he plays like he’s 25 or 26-years-old. He’s one of the most talented players in Japan. I’ve tried to make his level higher, which he has to overcome. Individually, he pushes me a lot, which makes me more concentrated and I feel really good playing with him.”
Iran captain Ashkan Dejagah paid tribute to outgoing coach Carlos Queiroz after the former Real Madrid manager announced he was stepping down after Team Melli were dumped out of the Asian Cup following a 3-0 defeat by Japan.
Iran – the highest ranked Asian team in FIFA at No29, alongside Serbia – had played some scintillating stuff on their way to the semi-finals. They remain the second highest scorers at the tournament with 12 goals and hadn’t conceded one before Monday night’s chastening defeat – with the scoreline harsh on Queiroz’s side.
Hajime Moriyasu’s men went ahead in fortuitous circumstances when Takumi Minamino decked it in an attempt to win a free-kick, then suddenly got to his feet and retrieved the ball, delivering a cross for Yuya Osako to head home after Iran players hesitated, believing Australian referee Chris Beath would stop play.
Osako then netted a second from the spot to leave Iran bamboozled, with Genki Haraguchi adding further gloss to the scoreline in stoppage time.
Iranian skipper Dejagah was left dejected after the game but hoped Queiroz would extend his eight-year reign at the helm of Team Melli – even though while the former Fulham and Wolfsburg midfielder was talking to reporters in the bowels of Al Ain’s Hazza bin Zayed Stadium, his boss was ending his tenure upstairs.
“I don’t know right now, even him. For him it’s really difficult because we worked so, so hard all these weeks, believe me,” said the bitterly disappointed 32-year-old, who has also played for Nottingham Forest and Hertha Berlin in his career.
“I don’t know what is his plans but I can just say thank you for everything he has done until now and I hope he will stay because he has helped a lot Iranian football.”
The 57-times capped skipper, since last year plying his trade back in his homeland with AFC Champions League regulars Tractor Sazi, will now have a big job, lifting the spirits of his team-mates and leading an exciting, young, new generation of Iranian stars that have thrived and risen inside the top 30 teams in international football under former Portugal manager Queiroz.
Iran, who made the 2014 and 2018 World Cups under Queiroz and won three straight Asian Cup titles from 1968 to 1976, have nevertheless not made another final in the intervening 43 years, and nothing tangible to show for their progress.
Dejagah was feeling understandably down about a margin of defeat that was harsh in the extreme on his side, but said Iran could hold their heads high.
“I don’t know how to say. I didn’t even think one per cent about the defeat today, I thought we were going through. But this is football,” said the Tehran-born player, who won the European Under-21 Championship with Germany in 2009 and represented Die Mannschaft all the way through youth level before deciding to represent the country of his birth at senior level.
“It’s really difficult to understand. 3-0 is not fair. Until 1-0 we had played a good game, we also had a couple of chances. It’s hard, really hard because all three goals were mistakes from us.
“And the penalty? I don’t know. It doesn’t matter if I talk now about it, it’s done, we lost the game, so it’s hard really.”
He featured at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil and was part of the 2018 squad in Russia last summer, adding: “Of course (we go home with heads held high). Now, it’s difficult, all the players are down because we were so close to the final after a long time, many years.
“We did a great job here. We showed we have a great team, so we have to try to improve and bring through the young players. It was a good tournament but it’s really hard to see the result, it’s not fair.”