AL AIN: Japan and Iran became the first two teams to advance to the Asian Cup semi-finals on Thursday.
Four-time champions Japan eliminated Vietnam 1-0 in their quarter-final before three-time winners Iran cruised past China 3-0. The two unbeaten winners are set to meet in the semis on Monday.
In Dubai, midfielder Ritsu Doan converted a penalty with a low left-foot shot in the 57th minute to give Japan their fifth win in five games, all by a one-goal margin.
“It is clean sheet and we go through to the next round, that is the most important.” Japan captain Maya Yoshida said. “We need to improve a lot, attacking side and defensive side as well. I feel real confidence with that. But we have to be more clinical, we have to think of more details and we can handle it.”
In Abu Dhabi, Iran continued their quest to end a barren run at the Asian Cup dating back 43 years with Mehdi Taremi, Sardar Azmoun and Karim Ansarifard all on target.
But Iran coach Carlos Queiroz insisted his side should not be labelled title favourites, despite ending Marcello Lippi’s reign as China coach in such clinical fashion.
“Now we know the big sharks will come for us,” said the former Real Madrid boss. “The suit of favourites doesn’t fit us. Japan, Korea are coming, so we need to be more alert — what we did against China will not be enough.”
Iran drew first blood after 18 minutes of a lop-sided quarter-final when Azmoun squared for Taremi to sweep home after some calamitous Chinese defending.
Their second was almost a carbon copy — much to the chagrin of Lippi, who stood staring in horror.
This time Liu Yiming misjudged a hopeful punt down-field, allowing Azmoun to nip in and round goalkeeper Yan Junling to score his fourth of the tournament.
China’s best chance came after just six minutes when Hao Junmin wriggled free, only for Iran defender Ramin Rezaeian to slide in with a superb goal-line clearance.
Iran could have been out of sight by half-time as Azmoun — dubbed the “Iranian Messi” — twice went close and Taremi missed a sitter, before picking up a yellow card that rules him out of the semi-final.
After Ehsan Hajsafi had forced a sharp save from Yan on the hour mark, Ansarifard raced clear to add a third in stoppage time.
It was another dominant performance from Iran, who also equalled South Korea’s record of keeping clean sheets in their first five games at a single Asian Cup.
China finished runners-up in 1984 and 2004 but the sleeping giants of Asian football were no match for Iran as their challenge ended in a whimper.
“Many people might have expected this result, but I’m angry at how it happened,” growled Lippi, who is stepping down after two years in charge.
“You cannot afford to gift a team like Iran three goals,” added the 70-year-old, who steered his native Italy to World Cup glory in 2006.
“It has been a huge honour to be the coach of China. I wish it didn’t have to end on such a gloomy note.”
Video reviews were introduced at the Asian Cup on Thursday for the rest of the tournament, and disallowed a first-half goal by Yoshida. VAR revealed the ball hit his arm.
Later on, it was used before the lone goal in the second half, confirming Bui Tien Dung’s foul on Doan in the area.
Hajime Moriyasu’s side won the last of their record four Asian Cups in 2011 and have hardly set the world alight at this tournament.
“It doesn’t matter how you win — the important thing is to get through,” said Moriyasu. “We knew Vietnam would be obdurate opponents but the players kept their focus and we move on.”
Outsider Vietnam made the knockout stage only as the final, fourth-best third-place team from the group stage and knocked out Jordan in a penalty shootout in the round of 16.
Vietnam goalkeeper Dang Van Lam was happy with the team’s achievement.
“We’re OK with this result,” he said. “Our country and our fans, I think, they are very happy.”
Published in Dawn, January 26th, 2019