ABU DHABI (AFP) – Iran coach Carlos Queiroz warned of toothy predators after reaching the Asian Cup semi-finals, but the shock exits of South Korea and Australia suddenly make ‘Team Melli’ clear title favourites.
First though they have the little matter of overcoming four-time winners Japan tonight – a tasty “amuse-bouche” before hosts United Arab Emirates (UAE) square up to Qatar 24 hours later.
Under heavy pressure to win Asian football’s most coveted prize for the first time since 1976, Iran have swept imperiously through the tournament as some of their most feared rivals have faltered.
“We know the big sharks will come for us,” said Queiroz after Iran thrashed China 3-0 in the quarter-finals, pointing to the Koreans, Japan and Australia – two of whom ultimately lacked the bite to match the hype.
“What we did against China will not be enough.”
After Son Heung-min’s South Korea were stunned 1-0 by 2022 World Cup hosts Qatar and UAE upset defending champions Australia by the same score, Iran’s players will be daring to dream.
But a new-look Japan side will be no pushovers as they look to extend their 10-game unbeaten run under Hajime Moriyasu.
“We need to be at it from the start,” said Japan captain Maya Yoshida after the Blue Samurai beat Vietnam 1-0 thanks to a VAR-assisted penalty – their fifth straight victory by a single-goal margin.
“If we can’t get on the front foot early on, we’re not going to win.”
Iran have hit 12 goals in their five games – four of them scored by the ‘Iranian Messi’ Sardar Azmoun – and conceded none.
But the Japanese, who were only denied a World Cup quarter-final spot by an astonishing Belgian comeback from two goals down, have defied the odds at previous Asian Cups.
Qatar’s run to their first semi-final is all the more remarkable given the hostility shown towards them.
After ambushing South Korea, Felix Sanchez’s side – like Iran yet to be breached defensively – will back themselves to beat the Emirates and silence the haters in Abu Dhabi.
Sudan-born striker Almoez Ali, who needs one more goal to equal Ali Daei’s 1996 record of eight in a single Asian Cup, warned that Qatar were hungry to get to the final on February 1.
“We’re proud of what we have achieved,” he said. “But we’re not planning to stop at the semi-finals – we want to go further.”
UAE, runners-up the last time they hosted the Asian Cup in 1996, have enjoyed considerable fortune along the way.
Disputed late penalties earned the Emiratis a point against Bahrain in the tournament curtain-raiser and a 3-2 extra-time win over Kyrgyzstan in the last 16.
But UAE coach Alberto Zaccheroni backed the 2015 semi-finalists to cope with Qatar’s offensive threat.
“Beating one of Asia’s top teams in Australia will give our players great confidence,” said the Italian, who steered Japan to a record fourth title in 2011.
“My players are an honest bunch who will be hugely motivated to go further.”