It is the first semifinal of the AFC Asian Cup 2019. And what an exciting clash it has thrown at us as this edition’s standout performers IR Iran face Japan, the most successful team in the tournament’s history, face each other on Monday.
Carlos Queiroz’s Iran are looking to win the nation’s first Asian Cup title in 43 years while 2011 champions Japan are looking to taste victory again after getting knocked out in the quarterfinals last time around.
All these make for a high voltage clash at the Hazza bin Zayed Stadium in Al Ain, and we take a look at the five key facts around the game.
1) Iran yet to score against Japan in the Asian Cup
This will be the fourth Asian Cup meeting between Iran and Japan, but it is quite baffling that Team Melli are yet to score goal against the Samurai Blue. All three of their previous meeting came in the group stages with the matches twice ending in draws.
The other match, in the 1992 Asian Cup hosted by Japan, ended in a 1-0 defeat for the Iranians as Kazuyoshi Miura scored the winner in the 87th minute! While Iran were eliminated in the group stages, Japan, who had a certain Hajime Moriyasu in their ranks, went on to lift their first Asian Cup title defeating Saudi Arabia 1-0 in the final at Hiroshima.
2) Can 2019 end Team Melli’s semifinal heartbreaks?
Iran have reached the semifinals of the Asian Cup for the first time since the 2004 edition. However, the history of Team Melli in the semifinals of this competition is grim reading for Iran fans.
They have failed to progress from each of their last five semifinals, with three of those eliminations coming via penalty shootouts! They last made it to the final in 1976 when they won their third back-to-back title — which still remains the last they have won 43 years on!
Meanwhile, Japan have made it to the semifinals in five of the last six Asian Cup tournaments (2000, 2004, 2007, 2011 and 2019) going on to lift the trophy on three occasions. The only time they didn’t reach the last four during that period was in 2015 while their only defeat in the semifinals came in 2007 — a 3-2 loss against Saudi Arabia.
3) Japan’s impeccable record in the new millennium!
Japan have been the perennial favourites for the Asian Cup ever since they first won the title 27 years ago. And their record in the competition since the turn of the new millennium has been particularly very impressive.
The Samurai Blue have lost just one of their 33 games at the Asian Cup since the start of the 2000 tournament!
Yes, you read that right. This means that they have won 23, drawn nine and lost just once in the continental showpiece in the 21st century.
They are also unbeaten in the competition since a 3-2 defeat against Saudi Arabia in the 2007 semifinals — winning 12 and drawing four matches since.
4) Iran’s defence needs to be appreciated
Quieroz on privilege to play Japan with Iran ahead of Asian Cup semi-final match
While their attack has been praised a lot during the tournament, and rightly so, Iran’s defence also deserves a word or two of appreciation as they are yet to concede a goal in the tournament so far — that despite facing the likes of China PR, Iraq, Oman and Vietnam on their road to the semifinals.
They join Qatar as the only two sides yet to concede a goal at this year’s competition, equalling Korea Republic’s record of keeping five clean sheets from their first five games at the 2015 Asian Cup in Australia.
And if Team Melli can pull off another shutout in the semifinal against Japan, it will be the longest run without conceding a single goal from the start of a tournament in the competition’s history.
5) A tale of two strikers!
AFC ASIAN CUP 2019 Player of Day 17: SADAR AZMOUN
Iran attacker Sardar Azmoun has hit a purple patch recently and was instrumental in Queiroz’s side defeating China in the quarterfinals as he bagged a goal and an assist. The 24-year-old Rubin Kazan forward has scored four goals so far at the 2019 Asian Cup with only Qatar’s Almoez Ali netting more with seven goals.
Meanwhile, Japan have found goals hard to come by in the tournament with them winning all their games in the tournament so far by single-goal margins. And the pressure will be on their forward Takumi Minamino to start netting goals if Japan are to have a shot at winning the competition.
And talking about shots, Minamino, the 24-year-old Red Bull Salzburg striker, has had more shots without scoring a single goal at this year’s tournament than any other player. The Japanese attacker is yet to find the back of the net despite firing 10 shots in the last five matches!
(Stats via OPTA)