Saturday 03/02/24: Iran vs Japan
2:30 PM local time
Location: Al Rayyan, Qatar (Education City Stadium)
Iran survives a near upset from Syria, winning the Round of 16 matchup on penalties and will face Japan in the Quarterfinals of the 2023 AFC Asian Cup.
Iran went into their Round of 16 matchup against Syria with confidence after topping Group C winning all three group matches. The first half started well for Team Melli as they were awarded a penalty and striker Mehdi Taremi sent the goalkeeper the wrong way and tucked it home to give Iran the lead. The second half was vastly different. In the first minutes, Iran were knocking on the door to score a second and essentially ice the game, but Syrian goalkeeper Ahmad Madania was having the game of his life, saving nine shots. Then in the 64th minute, a ball over the top troubled the Team Melli defense and Iranian goalkeeper Alireza Beiranvand took down substitute Pablo Sabbag. Syria were given a penalty of their own and Omar Khribin was able to equalize. Iran kept pushing for the winner despite the equalizer. However, in the 90th minute, Syria were through on goal. To avoid a potential two-on-one opportunity on the counter attack with defenders Rouzbeh Cheshmi and Ramin Rezaeian out of position, goalscorer Mehdi Taremi, already on a yellow card, took down the Syrian attacker and was given a second yellow card. The match would go into extra time and Iran would have to defend for 30 minutes with a man down. They fought admirably and were able to send the match into penalties. When Syria went up for their second penalty kick, Beiranvand was able to guess correctly and save the shot. Iran took four beautiful penalties from the spot and were ahead as Team Melli captain Ehsan Hajsafi was then able to score Iran’s fifth and final penalty to win the match and advance to the Quarterfinals. And breathe, even for just a moment before facing the Samurai Blue.
Since Mehdi Taremi was sent off against Syria in the last match, he will serve a one-match suspension and will miss the Quarterfinals against Japan. In 2019, Iran beat China in the Quarterfinals of the Asian Cup but Mehdi Taremi picked up a yellow card and missed the semifinal match due to yellow card accumulation. The opponent? Japan. This will be the second tournament in a row that Taremi will not be able to play against The Samurai Blue. It is a massive loss as he is the team’s top goalscorer in the tournament so far. However, Karim Ansarifard, the 33-year old striker, is a strong replacement and has good experience with the national team and already has a goal to his name this tournament.
In other news, center-back Hossein Kanaani will be returning to the squad after serving his one-match suspension after he picked up an accumulation of yellow cards in the group stage match against UAE. With Majid Hosseini officially out for the rest of the tournament, Shoja Khalilzadeh cramping towards the end of the Syria match, and Rouzbeh Cheshmi not having his best performance, Kanaani as an extra body gives Iran much needed depth at center-back.
The main surprise in the lineup against Syria was the inclusion of winger Alireza Jahanbakhsh, who struggled in the group stages. However, he stepped up in his performance against Syria and will likely keep his spot in the lineup. As for the rest of the side, a few players reportedly caught flu-like symptoms before the Syria game and were able to play through it, such as Shoja Khalilzadeh and midfielder Saman Ghoddos. However, the players should be ready to go for Saturday. I expect manager Amir Ghalenoei to bring in Kanaani and Ansarifard into the starting XI in place of Cheshmi and the suspended Taremi. It’s possible that Iran could switch into a midfield three given how strong Japan are in that area, but I don’t see the formation changing in such an important match. How Iran defended in extra-time against Syria will likely be how the team starts off against Japan so expect Team Melli to be less attacking then they have usually been in the tournament.
Projected Starting Line-up (4-4-2)
Beiranvand; Rezaeian, Kanaani, Khalilzadeh, Hajsafi (C); Jahanbakhsh, Ghoddos, Ezatolahi, Ghayedi; Azmoun, Ansarifard.
The opponent: Japan
Japan came into the Asian Cup as the heavy favorites considering their squad’s strength compared to the competition, their underdog story in the 2022 FIFA World Cup making the Round of 16, and the experience of Manager Hajime Moriyasu. However, in their second group stage match they lost to Iraq 2-1 and would later end up finishing in second place in Group D. Since that defeat they have bounced back, scoring three goals in each of their last two games and are starting to look like themselves again. They have talent all over the pitch from defense to attack. At center-back they have Arsenal’s Takehiro Tomiyasu, in center midfield they have Liverpool’s Wataru Endo, and out wide they have in-form 22-year old Takefusa Kubo for Real Sociedad. They also have a very strong bench that can come in and make an impact. Look out for Brighton’s Kaoru Mitoma, who hasn’t started yet due to injury, but his latest cameo against Bahrain in the Round of 16 can see him in the starting lineup for the first time this tournament.
Their main - and maybe their only weakness - is their 21-year old goalkeeper Zion Suzuki, who has let in a couple of easy shots and frankly, Syria’s Ahmad Madania would have been able to stop them. They also have struggled in the air, which Iraq exposed in Japan’s only loss. Iran can potentially use someone like Sardar Azmoun on crosses from fullbacks Ehsan Hajsafi or Ramin Rezaeian, or Iran’s center-backs can get on the end of corners.
Iran 1 - 3 Japan
Despite Iran having a potential gameplan to beat the Samurai Blue, Japan’s talent is going to overwhelm Iran’s experienced yet older defense, as Japan can get in behind it with ease. It is a shame to see Iran vs. Japan being played in a Quarterfinal because this matchup is worthy of a final. Expect wingers Ritsu Doan and Takefusa Kubo to get on the scoresheet. If Iran were to get an unexpected goal in this match, it would most likely come from a Sardar Azmoun header or a Karim Ansarifard penalty. One player that is the X-factor for Iran is Saman Ghoddos. He hasn’t made a goal contribution since his two assists against Palestine and is arguably Iran’s most important player. He has dominated the midfield but with Mehdi Taremi out of the team, he must put the team on his back and be willing to shoot and get forward more often for Iran to have a chance at playing in an AFC Asian Cup semifinal. If Iran somehow manage to come away with the victory – and that is a big if – they will go on to win the tournament.
To listen to our podcast previewing the Iran vs. Japan match, visit: golbezanpodcast.com/golbezan/preview-iran-vs-japan-2023-afc-asian-cup
Education City Stadium, Al Rayyan