The Asian Cup quarter finals kicked-off on Thursday, and the first middle eastern representative of this stage - Iran - has played against China, at the Mohamed bin Zayed Stadium in Abu Dhabi.
Carlos Queiroz has lined up his best players in the squad for the mission. The impact was almost immediate. China started the match with great motivation and almost found Alireza Beiranvand and his defence not ready, but the Persepolis keeper was on spot and managed to grab the ball on time.
After ten minutes, Iran has started to play. Sardar Azmoun was almost unstoppable, as he pressed the Chinese defenders over & over, what brought Iran its first goal, after Azmoun stole the ball from Shi Ke, ran towards the keeper and left Mehdi Taremi a seater from an open goal. 1-0 Iran after 18 minutes of play.
China needed an early substitution after Wu Xi was injured on the 25th minute, and the change made their game messy. Iran pushed them to their own half and China’s coach Marcelo Lippi has made another change and threw in striker Xiao Zhi for midfielder Feng Xiaoting.
It didn’t help. Three minutes later it was already 2-0 for Team Melli, as Azmoun chased another lost long ball, stole it from the Shi Ke and this time went all the way and scored the second. Azmoun has scored his fourth of the tournament, with only Qatar’s Almoez Ali has netted more (7).
When the halftime whistle arrived, it was almost all over.
The second half was played in a slower pace by both teams, but one dramatic event took place in the 67th minute when Taremi was booked with a yellow card, that determined that he will miss Iran’s next match. Taremi was shocked, but the call by the Qatari referee was right.
In the stoppage time, Taremi made sure that Iran will finish with style. He pressured the defender, found Karim Ansarifad, that went in only five minutes before instead of Azmoun, and the Nottingham Forest man made it a definitive 3-0 sweep for Iran.
Iran will now face one of the continent’s top teams - Japan, who have beaten Vietnam in the earlier game. With this victory, Iran has progressed from the quarter-finals of the Asian Cup for the first time since 2004, ending a run of failing to progress from three matches at this stage of the competition (2007, 2011, 2015).
In addition, Team Melli has equaled South Korea’s record of keeping clean sheets in their first five matches of an Asian Cup competition (5 in 2015). Despite the fact that Iran has a 12:0 goal difference in the tournament so far, there are a few talking points that Queiroz and his team need to think about before they meet the Blue Samurais.
In almost each one of their games, Iran had a shaky first ten minutes. It happened against Oman with the penalty, Iraq and even against Yemen. After these ten minutes, they are usually getting their things together, the defensive coordination is improving and then they are pushing it forward with their fantastic attacking tools. So far it went well against medium and mediocre teams. It is not sure whether it will work against a rival strong as them.
The absence of Taremi could be crucial against a team like Japan. Taremi is unpredictable. There are days which he can be one of Asia’s best, while at the same time he still has these moments when he suffers from a lack of concentration and inconsistency. Yet, there’s no doubt that he is an important member of Queiroz’s unit offensively and defensively. The yellow card he received against China can turn out to be crucial.
Luckily for Iran, on the bench, they have Saman Ghoddos and Karim Ansarifad, both in shape ready to be unleashed, in order to fulfill the biggest dream of Iranian people at the moment: bringing the Asian Cup home for the first time in 43 years.