Iran, Iran. The team that everyone tipped as the favourite to win the Asian Cup, the hope of the Middle East to bring glory for the region’s football, has been left empty-handed once again.
Exactly like against Bosnia in the 2014 World Cup, Iraq in the 2015 Asian Cup, Portugal & Spain in the 2018 World Cup, Iran arrived to a match they must win and managed to throw the chance out the window.
Carlos Queiroz, in his last match as Iran’s coach, has found out his team still can’t prevail in a moment of truth, as Iran lost 3-0 to Japan in the 2019 Asian Cup semifinal.
The first half was quite equal between the teams, as Iran struggled to develop their regular game, while the Japanese were dangerous with varied counter attacks. Sardar Azmoun had a great chance within the Japanese box but the Japanese goalkeeper Shuichi Gonda was quick to react and save.
Ashkan Dejagah, Vahid Amiri and Alireza Jahanbakhsh suffered from a bad day, and Iran’s main weapon was to send long balls towards Azmoun. It didn’t work well as it did against China.
The only player who really stepped up his game in the first half was Ehsan Hajsafi, but overall Iran looked vulnerable and out of pace. The first half proved how much Taremi is crucial in Queiroz’s lineup. By character, Iran was almost a different team from what they showed throughout the tournament.
The second half kicked-off in the same way, but after five minutes, Hazza bin Zayed Stadium in Al-Ain was dazzled by an unusual mistake. Takumi Minamino, the Japanese forward of RB Salzburg, ran for the ball with Mohamed Kanani and fell right near the box.
The whole Iran defence went for the referee to protest that there was no foul, but Minamino got up, grabbed the ball and lobbed a perfect ball from the left side of the box to striker Yuya Osako, who headed in the 1-0 for Japan. Iran was in a complete shock.
Iran tried to develop their game and create chances, but every time it looked promising - it went wide. Dejagah tried, Hajsafi tried, but none of them could provide a decent shot on target.
A few minutes passed and Japan won a penalty. The ball has hit the hand of Morteza Pouraliganji in a controversial way while he made a sliding tackle inside the box, and Australian referee Chris Beath went for the VAR. In a tough call, he decided to order a penalty kick for the Blue Samurais. Osako, him again, was ice cold in front of goalkeeper Alireza Beiranvand. 2-0 Japan and the match seemed to be over.
These minutes were heartbreaking for Iranian fans. Watching one of Asia’s and the Middle East’s greatest sides in recent history, losing this way. From that moment on, it was a hard view watching Queiroz’s eight-years-project slowly dissolve on the pitch. The Portuguese manager who developed football in Iran in an uncompromising way, couldn’t provide answers to his team’s emergency case in the last match.
Karim Ansarifad went in, Saman Ghoddos entered and Mehdi Torabi as well, but nothing changed in the spirit or ideas of the players. While the Japanese had four players with 30 passes or more, Iran had only two, in a great example for the lack of composure and coordination of the Iranian side.
In stoppage time, it was Genki Haraguchi who founded himself all alone, ran half a pitch and scored the third in what was a jarring end chord for Iran’s Asian Cup campaign. Team Melli’s players started to argue and fight with their opponents, but it was meaningless in the given situation. The referee blew and it was all over.
Iran has now failed to progress from each of their last six semi-finals at the Asian Cup since beating China 2-1 in 1976. In addition, in four Asian Cup matches against Japan, Iran has failed to win (drawn 2 lost 2), conceding 4 and scoring none.
This was their joint biggest Asian Cup defeat (also 3-0 against South Korea during the 1988 group stages) and their biggest loss in a knock-out game at the tournament.
If that’s not enough, Iran conceded three goals in this game against Japan – as many goals as they had conceded in their previous nine matches at the Asian Cup (excluding penalty shootouts).
Iran had it all, but couldn’t step up in their most important match. They had a tremendous 2019 Asian Cup, but if you lose your focus for 40 minutes this way, in such a game, you can’t win it.