Soccer | From the Spot

Japan-Iran semi has high stakes, little drama

by Dan Orlowitz

In the heat of the 2016 U.S. presidential election, a certain candidate promised his supporters that they would be “tired of winning.”

It’s a sentiment that could just as easily apply to observers of the Samurai Blue after their fifth shaky one-goal win of the Asian Cup, this time against Southeast Asian champions Vietnam in Thursday’s quarterfinal match.

To be fair, a few missing pieces from last Monday’s narrow 1-0 round-of-16 win against Saudi Arabia fell into place. But will the rest of the puzzle be solved in time for Monday’s semifinal matchup against Asia’s No. 1-ranked Iran?

After failing to do much of anything against the Saudis with less than 30 percent possession, the Samurai Blue turned things around with 69 percent possession . . . and were still outshot 12 to 11 as Vietnam’s five-back formation stayed busy all night.

Ritsu Doan’s penalty was not quite as rousing as Takehiro Tomiyasu’s game-winning header on Monday, yet in the end it was equally as important to the result.

The lone change from Monday’s squad came at the top of the formation, where Koya Kitagawa replaced suspended Newcastle attacker Yoshinori Muto.

Suffice to say that the Shimizu S-Pulse man’s most important role in his eighth senior appearance came in the 72nd minute, when he took an early seat on the bench for substitute Yuya Osako.

“(Kitagawa’s) playing area frequently overlapped with that of Takumi Minamino and the two had trouble syncing gears, ” wrote Yoshiyuki Kawaji for Football Channel. “But the only thing they can do is work it out on the pitch, and Kitagawa has at least dedicated himself to improving since the opener.

“It’s harsh to compare Kitagawa to Osako up top, but the competition is always tough within the national team and he won’t always be given opportunities in the best of circumstances.”

Osako’s 20-plus minutes back on the pitch were a positive sign that the Werder Bremen man’s glute injury has healed enough, potentially in time to start against Iran in Monday’s semifinal showdown.

Team Melli, which dispatched China 3-0 in its own quarterfinal match, came into the Asian Cup as the continent’s top side — No. 29 in FIFA’s rankings, 12 above Australia and 21 above Japan.

Speaking to From the Spot, Pasha Hajian of “Gol Bezan,” the top podcast covering Iranian soccer, explained why this tournament means so much for Iranian fans.

“In the last few years, (the national team) has meant much more (in terms of) comfort and pride for us, because unfortunately Iran is not in as great a state as it used to be because of internal and external factors and politics,” Hajian said on Saturday.

“With the (international) sanctions, it makes us more proud to see that with all these issues, we can still compete against the likes of South Korea, Australia and Japan. We have something to prove.”

Japan and Iran last faced each other competitively during 2006 World Cup qualifying, with each side winning 2-1 at home. Their only encounter since was a 1-1 friendly draw in Tehran. According to Hajian, it’s a matchup that Iranian fans are excited about — for several reasons.

“Iran has not always been the best tournament team. History has shown that,” Hajian admitted. “Japan has always been a good tournament team.

“We believe that if we beat Japan, we’re going to win the Asian Cup. If we don’t beat Japan, we didn’t deserve it, because in order to win you need to play against top sides such as Japan.

He continued: “We’re happy to play Japan instead of Saudi Arabia because of the politics. Against Arab nations it’s more emotional . . . Iran and Japan are two top teams, but they aren’t considered rivals.”

As for Iran’s strategy, Hajian believes it could go one of two ways.

“Is (manager Carlos) Queiroz going to revert to his counter-attacking style,” Hajian pondered, “or is he going to say ‘Japan is playing defensively, let’s just go at ’em’ and see how Japan can cope with our attack?”

Team Melli will pose the greatest test yet for head coach Hajime Moriyasu, who with a win would silence most of Japan’s doubters from this tournament — this writer included.