Iran needed something special to record their first victory against Japan in 19 years, and Team Melli did just that with a courageous second-half performance that took them to the Asian Cup semi-finals against hosts Qatar.
Despite falling behind in the first half, the three-time champions Iran came back after the interval with much more desire than Japan to emerge as 2-1 winners in the quarter-final contest, keeping alive their hopes of a first title since 1976.
When captain Alireza Jahanbakhsh converted a penalty in stoppage time at Qatar’s Education City Stadium, it sparked emotional scenes in the stands and on the pitch. Sardar Azmoun, who was excellent in the second half, was in tears as he spoke to the broadcasters.
The Roma forward had led Iran’s fight back 10 minutes after the break when his sublime pass was slotted into the bottom corner by Mohamed Mohebi.
Following that, only one team showed heart and belief, while Japan – who had led through Hidemasa Morita’s first-half strike – lost the physical and mental battle. Despite the introduction of Kaoru Mitoma and Takumi Minamino, Japan barely threatened the goal, succumbing to Iran’s relentless attacks. And when Ko Itakura brought down Hossein Kanani in the box in the 94th minute, the referee immediately pointed to the spot, with Jahanbakhsh sending a fierce strike into the top corner.
The victory extended coach Amir Ghalenoei’s unbeaten streak to 16 matches since he took charge in March. Ghalenoei said his players were “fantastic” in the second half. “They gave everything for the Iranian people,” he said. “This can be a turning point for Iranian football.”
Ghalenoei, whose side squeezed through on penalties over Syria in the last 16, took a potshot at critics of him and his side back home. “I am not saying criticism is not good, but some people in the last 11 months tried to ruin the national team,” he said.
Japan coach Hajime Moriyasu said his side must improve “in many aspects” and took full responsibility for the defeat. Japan, who were runners-up in 2019 and are four-time champions came into the tournament as favourites, but were never really convincing and failed to keep a clean sheet as they conceded eight goals during the tournament.
“Iran put us under a lot of pressure and we could not resist their pressure,” said Moriyasu, whose side were beaten 2-1 by Iraq in the group phase. “Against strong opponents we cannot concede goals like we did today. We should have scored a second, and if we had, the game would have been different.”
With players from both teams featuring in Europe’s best leagues, the match was not short of top-tier talent. But Iran were without suspended Porto forward Mehdi Taremi, while they had previously lost the services of defenders Sadegh Moharrami and Majid Hosseini through injury.
The history between these two teams, notably Japan’s 3-0 victory in the previous edition’s semi-finals, added extra significance to the match. Captaining Team Melli in the absence of Ehsan Hajsafi, Jahanbakhsh nearly opened Iran’s account in the 13th minute with a curling shot down the left flank, narrowly missing the target.
Suzuki’s first significant test came after 18 minutes when Hidemasa Morita lost possession, but Ezatolahli’s subsequent shot was dealt with ease by the Japanese goalkeeper. Morita redeemed himself 10 minutes later with a solo run as the defender beat three defenders to drill a shot past goalkeeper Alireza Beiranvand and into the net. Despite Saman Ghoddos’ half-volley chance, Iran couldn’t equalise before halftime.
Iran restored parity soon after the second half began as Azmoun supplied a through pass to Mohebi, who slipped past his marker and calmly slotted the ball into the bottom corner. Iran believed they had completed their comeback in the 64th minute, when Azmoun dribbled past two defenders and struck into the neat post. But the forward’s and his teammates’ celebration was cut short as he was ruled marginally offside.
Suzuki – who has had a nightmare tournament – made crucial saves to deny a spectacular Ezatolahi volley and another attempt with just six minutes left in normal regulation. But deep into added time, Itakura made a mess of a clearance and as he tried to recover, he tripped Kanani in the box in what was a clear penalty.
Jahanbakhsh stepped up and emphatically dispatched the penalty into the top corner, securing Ghalenoei’s men a famous victory and taking them one step closer to a first Asian Cup crown in 48 years.
Related Story