Japan will go in search of a record-extending fifth Asian Cup trophy after they swept aside Iran 3-0 in Al Ain.
Yuya Osako scored twice and Genki Haraguchi finished off previously impressive Iran in stoppage time to set up a final date with either the UAE or Qatar.
After an engaging but ultimately fruitless first half, the game burst into life just before the hour. Osako began and finished the move, playing in Takumi Minamino who retrieved possession to swing in an arching cross that Osako buried past Alireza Beiranvand.
Ten minutes later and it was advantage Japan when they made it 2-0. Minamino was again at the heart of the matter, getting in down the left channel and his cut-back harshly adjudged to have been handled by Morteza Pouraliganji.
Iran fans cheered loudly as VAR was called upon, but it was the Samurai Blue supporters who could be heard when the official held firm and stuck with his decision.
They were even more vociferous when Osako calmly slotted in his second to give Japan a commanding lead.
As Iran pushed for a way back into it, they were caught on the break late on when Hannover midfielder Haraguchi finished them off.
Iran’s fans: According to a 2018 study there are around 450,000 Iranians living in the UAE. That’s around 4.76 per cent, the fifth most among the expatriate population and sixth when including Emiratis.
At times it felt like 100 per cent of them were inside the Hazza as they boisterously cheered Team Melli on. Even when they went 2-0 down they were loud and proud and provided their side with a 12th man .
Clinical Japan: Hajime Moriyasu has been calling for his side to sharpen up after a blunt first five games. The Samurai Blue had won five from five, but all had been via a one-goal margin and only twice (3-2 v Turkmenistan and 2-1 v Uzbekistan) had they scored more than one.
Here they were as sharp as a samurai’s sword. They will be heavy favourites in the final.
Taremi is missed: Scorer of three goals at this tournament, Mehdi Taremi has terrorised defences at the Asian Cup.
He was one of the scorers against China, but his booking in that game robbed Iran of his terrier-like tenacity and tireless workrate here.
Sardar Azmoun was still a threat but too often aimless balls were pumped up to him and Vahid Amiri to chase rather than patient attacks being built through the middle.
Unsporting behaviour? Seconds before Japan opened the scoring there was a huge moment of controversy.
Takumi Minamino raced on to a pass from Werder Bremen forward Osako. He fell under a non-existent Hossein Kanaanizadegan challenge, but crucially stayed alert, saving the ball from going out for a goal-kick.
As five Iran players stood still, Minamino and, crucially, Osako, stayed focused, the latter meeting the former’s fine cross with a firm header. Bad from a sporting point of view, but Iran switching off was even worse.
TACTICAL TALKING POINT
That’s the Endo that: Japan are a largely immovable object rather than an incisive force under pragmatic Moriyasu, but when midfield lynchpin Wataru Endo was stretchered off on the hour, the coach saw it as a chance to go for the jugular rather than shut up shop.
On came Al Ain utility man Tsukasa Shiotani as Japan switched from 4-4-2 to 5-3-2. It opened up the wide areas and resulted in the killer second goal.
10th min CHANCE: Dejagah’s laser beam through ball gives Azmoun something to chase, but young centre-back Tomiyasu is there to snuff out the danger.
19th min CHANCE: First bit of incisive play in either box and Doan shows good feet to fashion a chance, but drags his shot inches wide of Beiranvand’s left post
22nd min CHANCE: Brilliant from Azmoun who plays an impish one-two with Muroya before slicing through two Samurai Blue defenders. Gonda gets a vital toe to it; corner
48th min CHANCE: Dejagah stands menacingly over a free-kick on the edge of the box. He hits it fiercely but off target
56th min GOAL: Brilliant but bemusing. Minamino goes down chasing a through ball, no foul. But with Iran defenders halting play, the Red Bull Salzburg player carries on and swings in a cross, nodded in by Osako
61st min SAVE: Jahanbakhsh arrows in a free-kick from the edge, tipped over smartly by Gonda
63rd min PENALTY: Minamino pulls it back and strikes the headstrong Pouraliganji who slides to ground. Referee Christopher Beath is asked to check VAR but re-affirms his decision.
67th min GOAL: Osako scores. Calmness personified as he slots to his right as Beiranvand dives left
90th+1 min GOAL: Iran are out on their feet and Japan pour forward. Haraguchi is in and the Samurai Blue have put Iran well and truly to the sword
Dispatched teams prior to this encounter with ruthless ease, yet struggled against a more organised and determined outfit. It was evenly poised until the opener, but after that they capitulated.
While Team Melli had torn teams to shreds during the tournament, it felt like Japan had been treading carefully. But a splash of fortune for the Samurai Blue and loss of focus from Iran for the opening goal was all that was needed for them to take command. Iran were sunk but Japan are peaking at the right time.
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