AL RAYYAN, Doha — The pre-tournament favourites, Japan are out of the Asian Cup — defeated 2-1 by Iran at the Education City Stadium on Saturday afternoon. And there can be no complaints from fans of the Samurai Blue.
They were comprehensively outplayed by the best team they’ve played all tournament; Japan coach Hajime Moriyasu unable to find an answer for the furious buzzsaw that was Iran as they stormed back from a goal down and sent his much-hyped side packing thanks to a 55th-minute strike from Mohammad Mohebi and a 96th-minute penalty from Alireza Jahanbakhsh.
There was a sense — one now proved false — throughout their Asian Cup campaign that we were waiting for the real Japan to arrive. That, eventually, the heavyweights would find their footing and blow the rest of the competition away. Until then, they could ride their luck and sheer talent to wins, not looking convincing and not keeping clean sheets, but doing enough.
But now that luck has now run out, Hidemasa Morita‘s 28th-minute goal seemingly shaking the last drops of fortune from the vial they had drunk from throughout their time in Doha.
The Sporting CP midfielder had fate twice smile upon him as his pivotal 28th-minute goal developed at the Education City but such was the intent to which he burst forward to create it, even if these strokes of luck were paired with a decided sense that the goal was very much a deserved one.
Continuing to sprint forward after playing the ball to the feet of a dropping Ayase Ueda, who in his third-straight start appears to have become coach Hajime Moriyasu’s designated striker, Morita left Saeid Ezatolahi in his wake as he darted into position to receive his teammate’s layoff.
His wayward control may have bounced off Shoja’ Khalilzadeh, who had peeled off the back of Ueda to contest, but the bounce still sat up for him to — magnificently — take Khalilzadeh, Hossein Kanaanizadegan and Omid Ebrahimi out of the play by dragging the ball back centrally.
What followed was a shot from the top of the box that Alireza Beiranvand was able to get his sizable foot to, only for it to ricochet off in the other direction and nestle in the back of the net for a Japanese lead; Morita shaking off the rather less intense impediment of Ritsu Doan and Takefusa Kubo as he ran to the corner flag to celebrate his first international goal in over two years, and first against an opponent of the magnitude of Iran.
But yet again, Japan couldn’t take a hold of their advantage and close the game out without making things hard on themselves. For the fifth straight game, their defences were breached. And when the goal finally came, no fair-minded analysis would have declared that it didn’t feel like it hadn’t been coming.
Jahanbakhsh and Ezatolahi had already flashed danger signs before Morita opened the scoring and now Team Melli was coming forward with a renewed sense of purpose, having conceded with the only shot on target that Japan had been able to muster to that point.
Saman Ghoddos had the ball drop for him as he lost his marker and turned to face goal only for his half-volleyed effort to fail to find the target and Roma‘s Sardar Azmoun then couldn’t stretch his leg out high enough to turn in a cross from Ghoddos at the back post.
Ten minutes into the second stanza, though, Iran had their much-deserved equaliser when an attempted long ball forward was seized upon and sent straight back from whence it came — Azmoun losing Takehiro Tomiyasu on the turn and playing a surgical pass into the path of Mohebi for the finishing touch.
At times, Japan’s best defender ended up being the assistant’s flag, as several promising Iranian attacks were foiled for inch-line offsides, none more notable than a goal-of-the-tournament contender by Azmoun being ruled out for his armpit being in an offside position as the ball that sprung him forward was played over the top.
Daizen Maeda played Morita into the box for a rare promising move forward by Japan in the 66th minute only for the goalscorer to fail to pull the trigger before he was swarmed and the shot heavily contested. Appeals for a penalty were made, looking for a handball in the build-up, but nothing was forthcoming. That was only Japan’s second shot on target for the game and their last.
And Iran kept coming.
They would end the game with 17 shots to eight, four on target to two, and an expected goals (xG) of 1.73 to 0.79, per Opta.
Mohebi headed into the side netting in the 61st minute and Azmoun forced Zion Suzuki into a spectacular save moments later (albeit, guess what, the flag was up again). Azmoun couldn’t find the target with a shot in the 73rd before Iranian appeals for a penalty for handball against Morita were waved away in the 80th.
Ezatolahi tried a spectacular-looking volley from the top of the box in the 84th only to send it straight at Suzuki and Jahanbakhsh blazed wide seconds before four minutes of added time were called for.
Then what felt like an inevitability occurred. Iran came again, and Japan’s suspect defence asked to yet again answer a question.
This time, they folded in rather fitting fashion — the makers of their own demise. With the ball in the air, Ko Itakura and Tomiyasu got in each other’s way as they attempted to collect. As it fell to the ground, Itakura hacked out at it in an attempt to clear it, only to find the legs of Kanaanizadegan as he did.
Up stepped Jahanbakhsh to hit one of the sweetest penalties you will ever see.
What went wrong for Japan will inevitably be the subject of a major inquisition back home.
The saga surrounding Junya Ito‘s exit from the team had to have played some role in distracting the squad but that still can’t completely account for a side that had been forced to go to penalties just days ago — hours after Japan cruised to a 3-1 win over Bahrain — being able to so thoroughly finish over the top of them.
Meanwhile, Iran is moving on, revenge for their 2019 semifinal loss to Japan gleaned and now with a chance to compete for a fourth continental crown, but the first since 1976, if they can defeat the winner of Qatar and Uzbekistan‘s quarterfinal at the Al Thumama Stadium on Wednesday evening.
They’ll get striker Mehdi Taremi back for that game and, just maybe, having beat ‘the man’ in Asia in Al Rayyan, must now be considered favourites for it all.
First appeared on www.espn.com