Japan had an easier path to their fifth Asian Cup final than they surely would have anticipated as they beat fellow continental heavyweights Iran 1-0 to reach the showpiece in the UAE.
In a tense and entertaining game, Yuya Osako’s 10-minute brace midway through the second half made the difference – with Genki Haraguchi adding gloss to the scoreline in stoppage time.
But it was rising Red Bull Salzburg star Takumi Minamino who was the real showstopper in Al Ain, the 24-year-old playing a key part in both of Osako’s strikes.
Here we take a closer look at his performance.
Although both teams lacked a cutting edge in the opening 45 minutes, this was a tussle befitting two titans of Asian football.
Both were intent on winning playing stylish, attacking football as each side poured forward at every opportunity.
In a tense and even game it was perhaps always going to be a mistake or piece of individual brilliance that opened it up. That came just before the hour when the tenacious Minamino retrieved what seemed a lost cause – delivering a fine cross from the byline that Osako gleefully headed home.
Osako then profited from more good work by Minamino when his cut-back was handled by the rash if unfortunate Morteza Pouraliganji. Osako made it 2-0 from 12 yards to put Japan in the driving seat.
Got right – Thorn in the side
Minamino’s early international career has been punctuated by frustration. He won the first of his 12 caps back in 2015, but then wasn’t selected by the Samurai Blue until 2018.
But with Hajime Moriyasu an advocate of youth, he has featured prominently in the UAE. Quality has been lacking but that all changed with the assist for the opening goal. Initially feigning being fouled to win a free-kick, he kept the ball alive as Iran’s players lapsed, delivering a delicious cross that was perfect for Osako.
He then tempted Pouraliganji into a poor slide tackle with his cut-back striking the defender’s hand.
Got wrong – Character?
Did Minamino bring the game into disrepute or was it simply a brilliant bit of intuition and a bitter lesson for Iran not to stop until the whistle blows? Probably a bit of both.
He was never getting to Osako’s original through ball and saw an opportunity to win a cheap free-kick. The Red Bull Salzburg forward will be painted as the villain, yet it was Iran who ultimately must look at themselves.
Minamino is one of Japan’s new brood trying to throw off the shackles of previous successful Samurai Blue sides who housed such celebrated stars like Keisuke Honda and Shinji Kagawa.
His Asian Cup prior to the semi-final had been bookmarked by working hard but lacking end product. Here, he married his characteristic work rate with an instrumental impact in the opening two goals. They may have borne the name of Osako, but they were created by one of the country’s emerging new stars.
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