Team Melli didn’t have Lady Luck on their side right from the start, further added by the suspension of winger Mehdi Taremi.
Japan raced into their fifth AFC Asian Cup final after drubbing Iran 3-0 at the Hazza bin Zayed Stadium, Al Ain. In what was an extremely efficient display from the Samurai Blue, they outclassed dominant Iran in commendable fashion to record their most impressive victory yet in this edition.
After a tight first half between the two Asian giants, Japan capitalized on two defensive errors from Iran, allowing Yuya Osako to score a quick-fire brace. Following that, Samurai Blue never took their feet off the peddle, throwing men forward in electric fashion, before rounding up a solid victory with Genki Haraguchi’s goal in the dying minutes. While the scoreline is deceitful to the overall game, Japan’s dominance in the second half and work as a complete unit, enabled them to take one step closer to winning their fifth Asian Cup title.
Things didn’t look good for Iran before the game began, with their prolific winger Mehdi Taremi being suspended, forcing Vahid Amiri to play instead. However, for Japan, quite the opposite happened as Osako came in for Koya Kitagawa, with coach Hajime Moriyasu playing his biggest stakes on this prime occasion.
Team Melli went with their staple 4-2-3-1 formation, which often retreated into a 4-3-3, with the wingers often tucking in the middle to try and move through the central areas. Carlos Queiroz needed to make a few changes because of Taremi’s absence, with all hopes being pegged on Sardar Azmoun, whose brilliance floored China in the quarterfinals.
How the sides lined-up at kick-off
Samurai Blue also persisted with their 4-4-2 formation, which often changed into a 4-4-1-1, with Takumi Minamino operating as a withdrawn forward in phases. Japan proved their immaculate defensive structure, resisting as a complete unit and moving almost telepathically to stop Iran from exploiting the spaces. Wataru Endo tucked in to help his defenders, whilst also doing the dirty work to stop Iran from capitalizing in the final third.
The first half proved to be just as tactical as it was intense. A half revolving around the midfield battle between the two sides, both Iran and Japan cancelled out each other with their strengths. Japan, arguably, played the more “beautiful” style of football, maintaining possession admirably. Their players showed impressive discipline in often forming trios to give each other options, imitating Barcelona’s “tiki-taka style” with their own little twist.
Team Melli, on the other hand, were more about brute force and aggression. Spurred on by their relentless captain Ashkan Dejagah, who put in a valiant effort in the first 45 minutes, they pressed the Japanese rigorously. Leaving out a silly foul or two, their pressing tactics proved to be effective and produced some counter-attacks as well. However, they lacked the killer ball in the final third, with Iran’s long-ball tactics being countered well by Japan.
A game predominantly decided in midfield
The first half’s chances were also created by the midfielders due to mistakes in the middle of the park. Azmoun and Ritsu Doan went closest for their respective sides, with both their chances being influenced by errors in the middle.
With both sides going into half-time toe-to-toe in competition, something had to give. It initially seemed like Queiroz had given a Sir Alex Ferguson-inspired hairdryer treatment in the dressing room. Iran came out in the second half swinging for the skies, mounting significant pressure on Japan’s back four. However, Moriyasu bided his time and instructed his side on exactly when and where to choke Team Melli.
Having seen Ramin Rezaeian and Morteza Pouraliganji show lapses in concentration earlier on, Japan decided to work their moves through their side. Keeping true to their style of working the ball into the box, Samurai Blue tried their luck in the 56th minute. A clever ball was played to Takumi Minamino, who went past Pouraliganji, forcing the player to put in a tackle. The Japanese striker eventually started tumbling to the ground, enraging the defender and his teammates, who tried to convince the referee to book him.
However, they didn’t anticipate the relentless nature of Minamino, who worked hard to recover the ball outside the box, catching Team Melli’s defenders off-guard. He put in a solid cross which met Osako’s powerful header, giving Japan a fortunate lead. In this case, fortune favoured the hard-working team.
Queiroz’s men were absolutely stunned and instantly went into panic mode. The Portuguese immediately substituted the disappointing Amiri for Karim Ansarifard, hoping for a swift reply. However, that wasn’t to be. Quite opposite to what everyone had expected, Japan, instead of going defensive as they did against Saudi Arabia, surprised Iran by playing much more positively. Suddenly, they were moving the ball more crisply and capitalizing on Iran’s lost composure.
The West Asians’ haphazardness resulted in another horrible defensive error ten minutes later. Pouraliganji’s poor pass to Ramin put the right-back in a tough spot, as he tried to pass the ball forward, only for Minamino and Co. to intercept it outside the box. The striker then went inside, before trying a cutback which struck the flaying hand of the Iranian center-back, resulting in a penalty.
Coming up against the towering Beiranvand, Osako showed nerves of steel, lodging the ball into the right corner to give his side a comfortable lead to sit on. But, why sit back and protect the lead? Moriyasu’s Japan had other ideas. While deploying a more defensive system, in which the full-backs stuck close to the centre-halves, they still had enough energy and pace to launch numerous counter-attacks.
Iran, couldn’t create anything big on the night. They threw bodies forward after the second goal, bringing in attack-minded Salman Ghoddos and Mahdi Torabi to mix things up. However, hitman Azmoun’s confidence was shot after being bullied and rattled by the fantastic duo of Maya Yoshida and Takehiro Tomiyasu. The Japanese center-backs took turns to knock him with hard challenges and nullify his impact.
How Japan and Iran moved forward in attack
Taremi’s absence in the final third left Azmoun all alone, rendering him ineffective. Yoshida and Tomiyasu- who deserve a place in the team of the tournament- were clearing every ball, tackling vigorously and keeping everything squeaky clean along with their full-backs.
In the end, one of their numerous counter-attacks proved fruitful. Samurai Blue moved ahead in unison, before Haraguchi calmly slotted past the helpless Beiranvand to record a famous victory. Japan’s experience in the big-game situation, their ability to absorb the pressure worked in their favour, while the lack of a Plan B ruined Iran’s momentum.
One could say the tiny error before the hour mark changed the complexion of the game. The unrelenting Japanese stars tasted blood. Ultimately, the intelligence of the Japanese prevailed over the magic of the mighty Iranians in this fascinating clash of styles.