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Source: ESPN

Feb 3, 2024

Japan finally run out of luck as Asian Cup favourites fall to Iran in quarterfinals

By Joey Lynch, Australia Correspondent

AL RAYYAN, Doha -- The pre-tournament favourites, Japan are out of the Asian Cup -- defeated 2-1 by Iran at the Education City Stadium on Saturday afternoon. And there can be no complaints from fans of the Samurai Blue.

They were comprehensively outplayed by the best team they've played all tournament; Japan coach Hajime Moriyasu unable to find an answer for the furious buzzsaw that was Iran as they stormed back from a goal down and sent his much-hyped side packing thanks to a 55th-minute strike from Mohammad Mohebi and a 96th-minute penalty from Alireza Jahanbakhsh.

There was a sense -- one now proved false -- throughout their Asian Cup campaign that we were waiting for the real Japan to arrive. That, eventually, the heavyweights would find their footing and blow the rest of the competition away. Until then, they could ride their luck and sheer talent to wins, not looking convincing and not keeping clean sheets, but doing enough.

But now that luck has now run out, Hidemasa Morita's 28th-minute goal seemingly shaking the last drops of fortune from the vial they had drunk from throughout their time in Doha.

The Sporting CP midfielder had fate twice smile upon him as his pivotal 28th-minute goal developed at the Education City but such was the intent to which he burst forward to create it, even if these strokes of luck were paired with a decided sense that the goal was very much a deserved one.

Continuing to sprint forward after playing the ball to the feet of a dropping Ayase Ueda, who in his third-straight start appears to have become coach Hajime Moriyasu's designated striker, Morita left Saeid Ezatolahi in his wake as he darted into position to receive his teammate's layoff.

His wayward control may have bounced off Shoja' Khalilzadeh, who had peeled off the back of Ueda to contest, but the bounce still sat up for him to -- magnificently -- take Khalilzadeh, Hossein Kanaanizadegan and Omid Ebrahimi out of the play by dragging the ball back centrally.

What followed was a shot from the top of the box that Alireza Beiranvand was able to get his sizable foot to, only for it to ricochet off in the other direction and nestle in the back of the net for a Japanese lead; Morita shaking off the rather less intense impediment of Ritsu Doan and Takefusa Kubo as he ran to the corner flag to celebrate his first international goal in over two years, and first against an opponent of the magnitude of Iran.

But yet again, Japan couldn't take a hold of their advantage and close the game out without making things hard on themselves. For the fifth straight game, their defences were breached. And when the goal finally came, no fair-minded analysis would have declared that it didn't feel like it hadn't been coming.

Jahanbakhsh and Ezatolahi had already flashed danger signs before Morita opened the scoring and now Team Melli was coming forward with a renewed sense of purpose, having conceded with the only shot on target that Japan had been able to muster to that point.

Saman Ghoddos had the ball drop for him as he lost his marker and turned to face goal only for his half-volleyed effort to fail to find the target and Roma's Sardar Azmoun then couldn't stretch his leg out high enough to turn in a cross from Ghoddos at the back post.

Ten minutes into the second stanza, though, Iran had their much-deserved equaliser when an attempted long ball forward was seized upon and sent straight back from whence it came -- Azmoun losing Takehiro Tomiyasu on the turn and playing a surgical pass into the path of Mohebi for the finishing touch.

At times, Japan's best defender ended up being the assistant's flag, as several promising Iranian attacks were foiled for inch-line offsides, none more notable than a goal-of-the-tournament contender by Azmoun being ruled out for his armpit being in an offside position as the ball that sprung him forward was played over the top.

Daizen Maeda played Morita into the box for a rare promising move forward by Japan in the 66th minute only for the goalscorer to fail to pull the trigger before he was swarmed and the shot heavily contested. Appeals for a penalty were made, looking for a handball in the build-up, but nothing was forthcoming. That was only Japan's second shot on target for the game and their last.

And Iran kept coming.

They would end the game with 17 shots to eight, four on target to two, and an expected goals (xG) of 1.73 to 0.79, per Opta.

Mohebi headed into the side netting in the 61st minute and Azmoun forced Zion Suzuki into a spectacular save moments later (albeit, guess what, the flag was up again). Azmoun couldn't find the target with a shot in the 73rd before Iranian appeals for a penalty for handball against Morita were waved away in the 80th.

Ezatolahi tried a spectacular-looking volley from the top of the box in the 84th only to send it straight at Suzuki and Jahanbakhsh blazed wide seconds before four minutes of added time were called for.

Then what felt like an inevitability occurred. Iran came again, and Japan's suspect defence asked to yet again answer a question.

This time, they folded in rather fitting fashion -- the makers of their own demise. With the ball in the air, Ko Itakura and Tomiyasu got in each other's way as they attempted to collect. As it fell to the ground, Itakura hacked out at it in an attempt to clear it, only to find the legs of Kanaanizadegan as he did.

Up stepped Jahanbakhsh to hit one of the sweetest penalties you will ever see.

What went wrong for Japan will inevitably be the subject of a major inquisition back home.

The saga surrounding Junya Ito's exit from the team had to have played some role in distracting the squad but that still can't completely account for a side that had been forced to go to penalties just days ago -- hours after Japan cruised to a 3-1 win over Bahrain -- being able to so thoroughly finish over the top of them.

Meanwhile, Iran is moving on, revenge for their 2019 semifinal loss to Japan gleaned and now with a chance to compete for a fourth continental crown, but the first since 1976, if they can defeat the winner of Qatar and Uzbekistan's quarterfinal at the Al Thumama Stadium on Wednesday evening.

They'll get striker Mehdi Taremi back for that game and, just maybe, having beat 'the man' in Asia in Al Rayyan, must now be considered favourites for it all.

For all their talent, it is Iran's heart that has driven them to an Asian Cup semifinal

By Gabriel Tan

Iran are through to the 2023 AFC Asian Cup semifinals after recording a 2-1 win over Japan on Saturday -- keeping alive their hopes of a first title since 1976. Robert Cianflone/Getty Images

Boasting players plying their trade all over Europe's top leagues including in England, Italy and Netherlands, there was never any doubt over the talent in the Iran ranks.

Then again, the same can be said about the team they were up against in Saturday's massive quarterfinal clash at the 2023 AFC Asian Cup.

Instead, it was sheer desire -- in the face of adversity too -- that saw Iran come from behind to claim a 2-1 win over Japan and book their place in the semifinals, keeping alive their hopes of a first title since 1976.

An already-difficult task against a team many considered as title favourites was made even more difficult without suspended star striker Mehdi Taremi, with Iran having also previously lost the services of defenders Sadegh Moharrami and Majid Hosseini through injury.

Based on what eventuated over the 90 or so minutes at Education City Stadium on Saturday, it is Iran who are looking like they could just go all the way.

Even when they fell behind to Hidemasa Morita's determined-but-slightly fortuitous opener in the 28th minute, Team Melli had already shown enough of bite and endeavour in the early exchanges to suggest they would not be disheartened in spite of conceding first.

That being said, a lesser team might have had heads falling after Morita rode a couple of challenges and benefitted from some lucky bounces as the ball continue to roll in his stride, before a fairly tame effort ricocheted off the outstretched boot of Alireza Beiranvand and looped into the back of the net -- with the Iran goalkeeper likely to feel he could have done better to make a save.

Perhaps it is understandable that Japan would then sit back a little deeper given they now had the advantage, but it is never wise to give a team like Iran even more encouragement to press on.

The final statistics would show that Japan had 58% of the ball but what their opponents did with their 42% of possession was far more meaningful.

Many in the Iran camp were unable to contain their emotion after a spirited performance proved too much for Japan on Saturday, as Team Melli moved one step closer to a first Asian Cup crown in 48 years. Lintao Zhang/Getty Images

They prodded with intent, playing purposeful passes into space in behind the Japan backline with Sardar Azmoun offering an excellent outlet, despite toiling up front on his own in the absence of Taremi.

It was Azmoun, with a strong piece of hold-up play and then a visionary pass that sent Mohammad Mohebi through to fire home the equaliser ten minutes after the restart.

From then on, it always looked like there would be a likelier winner -- and they were not the team in blue that many were expecting.

Just eight minutes after pulling level, Iran would score again via a brilliant solo effort from Azmoun only for the strike to be chalked off for the slimmest of offside calls.

Still, Iran were coming.

They showed impetus and hunger while Japan looked bereft of ideas.

Having made a catalogue of errors that had led to opposition goals in every game so far, Samurai Blue goalkeeper Zion Suzuki was now emerging as a potential hero as he produced a string of saves to keep the oncoming tide of Iranian attacks at bay.

Yet, just when Suzuki had finally come go, others would contrive to derail Japan's Asian Cup challenge.

With the game past the 90-minute mark, it was Iran who were still looking to find a winner rather than settle for extra-time.

A hopeful delivery lifted into the area looked to be offering no significant threat until Ko Itakura and Takehiro Tomiyasu, who both did not cover themselves in glory throughout the contest, somehow got into an amateurish mix-up -- allowing the ball to bounce in a dangerous area.

Epitomising the endeavour that Team Melli had shown, centre-back Hossein Kanaanizadegan charged towards the loose ball and, while he might not have produced anything of real danger to Suzuki's goal, the panic caused by his sheer intent saw Itakura recklessly hack him down to concede a penalty.

As the clock ticked into the 96th minute, Alireza Jahanbakhsh - captaining the side for the day with Ehsan Hajsafi on the bench - would keep his cool to send an unstoppable effort into the top corner.

When the final whistle blew not long after, there was an outpouring of emotion culminating in tears for some.

But perhaps curiously, they were not coming from the Samurai Blue camp, who instead simply looked dazed and in disbelief.

The tears were those of joy and relief -- from Kanaanizadegan, who simply sat and wept openly, to Jahanbakhsh, who had his head buried in the turf for many moments seemingly in prayer.

There was never any doubt that Iran had the talent to beat Japan, and it was this quality that meant the win was almost certain from the moment a player of Jahanbakhsh's ilk stepped up to take the decisive penalty.

Instead, it was the heart they had shown on the day that proved the difference for Iran -- and it was apt that it was them who showed the greater emotion at final whistle, knowing their efforts had not gone to waste.

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