Werder Bremen striker Yuya Osako scored twice in 11 second-half minutes to help four-times champions Japan into the final of the Asian Cup with a 3-0 victory over tournament favourites Iran on Monday.
Osako headed the first home in the 56th minute and added his second from the penalty spot to help set up a date with either hosts the United Arab Emirates or Qatar in Friday’s final in Abu Dhabi.
Genki Haraguchi put a gloss to the scoreline with a powerful run and shot in stoppage time at the end of the match but the contest was already long decided.
Iran had been the form team of the tournament but their dreams of a ending a 43-year wait for a fourth continental title were left in tatters by the clinical Samurai Blue.
Carlos Queiroz announced in the post-match news conference that his nearly eight-year run as Iran coach, which took in two World Cups, was over.
“I think the simplest thing to do is to copy the old song: ‘and now, the end is here’,” the Portuguese said, misquoting the song Frank Sinatra made famous.
“I’m happy and proud to say I did it my way.”
Roared on by a noisy majority of the crowd, the Iranians had enjoyed the better of a competitive, if goalless, first half but were completely deflated by Osako’s twin strikes and never looked like fighting their way back into the match.
“We knew it was going to be tough but the players showed great fighting spirit,” said Japan coach Hajime Moriyasu.
“I’m happy the players showed that fighting spirit and really went for the win.”
While Iran might have had a case that Morteza Pouraliganji’s arm blocked Takumi Minamino’s cross accidentally for the penalty, the opening goal was down to the sort of lapse of concentration that Queiroz has warned his team against.
Minamino had made a break down the left and crumpled to the floor on the edge of the area looking for a free kick or penalty.
None was forthcoming but while defender Ehsan Hajsafi was asking the referee to book the striker for a dive, Minamino raced to retrieve the ball and crossed it from the corner flag for Osako to head home unchallenged.
“It was very competitive, quite balanced game, until one error by my team, a naive error. We were all expecting action from the referee over the simulation,” said Queiroz.
“It was an emotional breakdown from my players and after that there was only one team on the pitch.”
It was the first goal Iran had conceded in six games at the tournament but winger Alireza Jahanbakhsh came close to equalising five minutes later with a free kick that forced a good save out of Shuichi Gonda.
The second blow landed soon afterwards when the referee pointed to the spot after the ball had struck Pouraliganji on the arm, confirming his decision following a look at the TV pictures on the sideline.
Osako sent goalkeeper Alireza Beiranvand the wrong way from the spot and a fifth final in the last eight versions of the continental championship look assured, Haraguchi helping to wrap up their first win by a margin of more than one goal at the tournament.
Queiroz stands down as Iran coach after semi-final defeat
The former Real Madrid coach had been hoping to deliver Iran’s first continental title since 1976 in the United Arab Emirates but Japan scored three second half goals to send them crashing out of the tournament.
“I think the simplest thing to do is to copy the famous song: ‘and now, the end is here’,” the 65-year-old Portuguese said, misquoting the standard Frank Sinatra made famous.
“I’m very happy and very proud because I did it my way. It’s just time show my gratitude to the Iranian fans and the players for the last eight years.”
Like the American crooner, Queiroz has had more than one comeback after resigning during his time as Iran coach but there was a finality to his comments that suggested that this time he would be going for good. “A huge, huge thank you to my players for everything,” the former Manchester United assistant coach added. “Taking into account the difficulties, the limitations they work under, they are going to be in my heart for the rest of my life.”
Queiroz, who has been linked with a move to coach Colombia, took Iran to the World Cup finals twice in his time as coach, earning one win in six matches over two tournaments.
He has had an almost perpetual running battle with his masters at the Iranian FA, though, trying to get more resources, facilities and more competitive friendly fixtures for his team.
“For eight years I have expressed my opinion about what should be done and I don’t think many people want to listen to my opinions,” he added.
“I am so proud of this adventure, this journey. The Iranian players have been fantastic, brilliant. They deserve to be in the final … for everything they do.
“I wish for them the best that they deserve. In these last eight years, they built credibility, they got a lot of attention because they are reliable. They earned respect from all over the world.”
Ending Iran’s 43-year wait for a third continental title had become something of an obsession for the former South Africa and Portugal coach and to see it end without success clearly knocked the stuffing out of him.
“I hope you understand that the end is here,” he repeated towards the end of his press conference.
His fighting spirit was revived when an Iranian journalist asked what responsibility he accepted for the defeat.
“My role in the game was, as for the last eight years, take full responsibility for what happens outside of the pitch,” he said.
“But I would like to ask him, ‘what was your role in the last eight years?’. Your role was silence and complicity, nothing more, while I was fighting for your national team.”
Flexible Japan showed challenger spirit to beat Iran, says coach
Japanese footballers might be best known for their technical skills but it was their fighting spirit that got them past Iran and into the Asian Cup final on Monday, according to coach Hajime Moriyasu.
A headed goal and a penalty from striker Yuya Osako in the second half crushed the spirit of the physical Iranians before Genki Haraguchi made it 3-0 in stoppage time to send the Samurai Blue into a fifth continental title-decider.
“Iran have had great results in the past and we knew they were going to be a very tough opponent, but the players had prepared well and they showed great fighting spirit,” Moriyasu told reporters.
“They didn’t forget to have the mindset of challengers and that gave us the win today. The atmosphere was like an away game for us but there were many Japanese supporters and many people back home supporting us too.
“I’m happy the players could show the spirit to fight and to deliver a good result.”
The Japanese had hardly set the tournament on fire with their previous performances in the United Arab Emirates, winning their three group games by the margin of a single goal and knockout matches against Saudi Arabia and Vietnam 1-0.
“I don’t think we changed compared to how we have played in the previous matches, but what our players did today was … try to perform to their best individually and as a team and play for the result,” Moriyasu added.
“Knowing that Iran have a strong attack and are strong physically, the players were aggressive and showed a lot of fighting spirit, and that was the difference. They tried to win the second ball and they were persistent.”
Japan have won all four of their previous Asian Cup finals and will go into Friday’s showpiece against the UAE or Qatar at Zayed Sports City as favourites.
The former Japan under-23 coach said they would maintain their pragmatic approach against whoever got through Tuesday’s second semi-final in Abu Dhabi.
“There wasn’t just one style of play in this match, but the players showed flexibility and that’s what got us the result,” he said.
“In the final we will have our football ideals, but when we face the reality we will adjust to that.”