While both teams share the same quest their respective paths to this meeting have been very different.
The first semi-final clash of the AFC Asian Cup is something out of a fairy-tale. The Hazza Bin Sayed Stadium will witness a clash between the former continent superpower and the current Asian powerhouse. Energetic Iran take on the resilient force of Japan, in an entertaining clash that could decide the fate of the power struggle in terms of football in the largest continent.
Iran came into the tournament with a well-established history of having been the continental champions. The West Asian powerhouse had won the tournament three times consecutively from 1968 to 1976, establishing themselves as the team to beat in Asia.
However, since the triumph on home soil in 1976, the Iranians have not reached the final even once. The side had managed four third-placed finishes during the period from 1980 to 2004, but hasn’t reached the semi-final since the 2004 tournament in China. A clear indication of the waning influence of Iranian football. Team Melli been usurped by teams like Australia, Japan and South Korea taking over the reins.
Until now that is. This tournament, Iran have displayed profound professional performances that have eclipsed the best in the continent. Carlos Queiroz’s men have been absolutely dominant on both sides of the pitch. The Portuguese gaffer’s side are one of the only two teams that are yet to concede at the event.
Their attack has piggybacked on their resolute defence to put in monstrous performances. The Iranians started the tournament with a rout of Yemen, scoring five unanswered goals, before a solid victory against tournament dark-horses Vietnam. A goalless draw against Iraq meant that they qualified top of the group. They survived a tricky test against Oman in the Round of 16, before scoring three past a clueless China.
The Samurai Blue, on the other hand, embody the exact opposite spirit to that of their opponents. Japan are the only team outside of West Asia to reach the semi-finals. They came to the UAE with a track record that screams continental success. The East Asian side have won the tournament four times since 1992, (out of a possible seven).
They will be looking to bring back the trophy after a disastrous exit in the quarterfinals in 2015. However, this time around it looks harder for them. The team is jam-packed with talent but lacks one key ingredient that seems necessary to win trophies – experience.
The relatively young squad lacks several big names like Shinji Kagawa and Shinji Okazaki, but they have faced every challenge with unrelenting resolve. The young Samurais led by Hajime Moriyasu battled hard in the group stage, winning all their games by a one-goal margin.
They had to come back from deficits twice against Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, which speaks volumes about their attitude. The Samurai Blue then saw off a strong challenge from Saudi Arabia. A Ritsu Doan penalty was enough to get past the tournament’s surprise package Vietnam.
Iran and Japan are currently at two ends of the football spectrum. The former, an Asian superpower from yesteryear, trying to claw their way back to the top of the food chain, is looking for their fourth Asian Cup title in 43 years. Team Melli, as Iran are fondly called, have looked more astute than the shaky Samurais, but Queiroz will need his men to be perfectly focussed to make sure that the Asian Cup comes back to West Asia.
Japan, meanwhile are looking to maintain their foothold in the continent, while ushering in the new age. The new set of players under Moriyasu have blossomed into a ferocious and testing force, but as the tournament reaches the latter stages, their resolve will be tested even more. If such a transition phase imbues them with success, Japanese football can then hope to compete with the elite nations of Europe.
It’s a classic matchup. The Targaryeans against The Lannisters. The has-beens hoping to be the next big thing against the settled monarchs of the land. There are very few occasions when so much is at stake. For both the nations, it is a question of making a statement that resonates across the footballing community. For neutrals, it is the most enthralling contest in the tournament yet.