The day saw back-to-back hard-fought games in the continental showpiece.
Japan and Iran became the first teams to book their place in the semi-finals of the AFC Asian Cup, on a frantic day of football in the United Arab Emirates. In the first quarterfinal, Japan squeezed past a courageous Vietnam side 1-0, through Ritsu Doan’s penalty at the Al Maktoum Stadium, Dubai. However, the VAR, used for the first time in the competition, made its presence felt right from the getgo.
The Samurai Blue had gone ahead in the first half through Maya Yoshida’s header, but the Video Assistant Referee saw that it actually hit his arm and ruled out the opener. After that drama ensued, the game truly opened up. In the 37th minute, due to Yoshida’s defensive errors, Phan Van Duc and Nguyen Quang Hai both had glorious chances to put Vietnam in front. However, Shuichi Gonda’s solid reflexes saved his captain from embarrassment.
Watch: Vietnam 0-1 Japan highlights
Just before half-time, Japan had another big chance to go ahead. After playing a clever one-two with Doan, Takumi Minamino was through on goal, but was denied by one of the saves of the tournament from Vietnam’s Dang Van Lam. He was actually sensational in saving many of Japan’s shots on goal, but was unfortunate when Doan was brought down inside the box. After consultation with VAR, the penalty was given and taken by the winger, who barely scored past Lam in the bottom left corner.
Vietnam huffed and puff to try and equalize, but had run out of energy late on in the game. Japan might not have been the most convincing, but move into the semi-finals after eight years. However, they’ll have to be more clinical in front of goal and cannot afford mistakes at the back, which they committed against Vietnam, but were lucky not to concede from.
Iran breezed past a lacklustre China, picking up a comfortable 3-0 victory at the Mohamed bin Zayed Stadium, Abu Dhabi to ease into the final four. A sensational performance from Sardar Azmoun, who first assisted Mehdi Taremi’s goal before scoring himself, was the defining factor of the match. Team Melli pounced on three defensive mistakes to consolidate a solid lead before the half hour mark and stake their claim to victory.
The game actually started in a shaky manner for Carlos Queiroz’s men, who were exposed to relentless attacks. They slowly took the clash by its throat and never let go. Iran continued pressing high after the initial shock and continued to pressurize Team Dragon’s defence. They finally got rewarded for their hunger, when Azmoun showed amazing pace to steal the ball from Xiaoting, who failed to make a simple back-pass. The Iran striker then found Taremi free inside the box, allowing his compatriot to put the ball into an empty net.
Watch: China PR 0-3 IR Iran highlights
13 minutes later, Liu Yiming fell victim to Azmoun’s hunger. Finding himself on the end of a long ball, Sardar overpowered the right-back before going past goalkeeper Yan Junling and coolly slotting it home. VAR was consulted about any foul being committed, but that was not the case. After that, a dejected China side tried to come back in the second half, but couldn’t break Iran’s defensive resolve.
In the 91st minute, another mistake from defender Shi Ke allowed Team Melli to seal the game. A failed clearance fell to Taremi, who sent substitute Karim Ansarifard through on goal, before he calmly slid it into the corner to top off a perfect performance. China had only a single shot on target, with their best chance coming late on, when Xiao Zhi’s attempt was saved comfortably by Alireza Beiranvand. Queiroz’s men showed incredible professionalism in pulling off another dominant win, whilst keeping their 100% defensive record intact by not conceding once again.
In the semi-finals, they’ll face Japan. A game between two extremely disciplined units, it’s set to be a tight one because of how defensively aware both the sides have been so far. However, if Iran’s lethal performance proves anything, it’ll take Samurai Blue some doing to stop their momentum.