Big guns Japan between Iran and historic final berth

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1,036 views – AL AIN, Four-time Asian Cup winners Japan will be looking to stop Iran’s quest for the first final appearance since last winning the competition in 1976 in a much anticipated Asian Cup semifinal on Monday.

Japan changed coach and subsequently a lot of players following a satisfying World Cup campaign. Despite losing a few keyplayers like goalkeeper Kawashima, midfield ace Kagawa or Leicester City striker Okazaki, the less experienced Japanese squad still possesses more quality than most other Asian teams.

Coach Hajime Moriyasu’s side has shown light and shadow so far in the tournament, struggling against weaker sides like Turkmenistan, Oman and Vietnam, but delivered when it mattered against Uzbekistan and Saudi Arabia. Especially against the latter, the Japanese showed an offensively uninspired but defensively rock solid performance, one that resembles of Iran’s performance in many key matches under Carlos Queiroz in recent years.

Strong defense, goal scoring woes

Indeed the strength of the Japanese team lies in defense. Ahead of the inexperienced Gonda in goal, Southampton veteran Yoshida organizes the defense with former Inter left-back Nagatomo, now at Galatasaray. On the right, Europa League winner Sakai of Marseille is the third experienced high quality defender. Just 20-year-old Tomiyasu of Sint Truiden rounds up the defense, one that, with the exception of Nagatomo, is also extremely strong in the air.

Also in midfield, Japan have good options, although not exactly having the same experience and quality as before anymore. Endo of Sint Truiden and Shibasaki of Getafe have less than 50 caps combined and Salzburg’s supporting striker Minamino and youngster Doan of Groningen on the right have 20 appearances together, also only having scored a handful of goals each. Hannover right-footed left-winger adds a little bit more experience and goals, having scored nine times in 45 games for Japan.

Goals and the center striker are almost traditionally Japan’s achilles heel. Newcastle’s Muto, who will return from suspension, is likely to return to the starting lineup, although only having scored a single goal for the Samurai Blue before the Asian Cup and now two in the opener against Turkmenistan.

Of the likely starting lineup, captain Yoshida has scored most goals for Japan, with ten career goals so far, although Bremen’s Osako might be a dangerous option off the bench, with 12 national team goals under his belt.

Question mark over Taremi replacement

In comparison, Sardar Azmoun alone already has scored 28 goals in 45 appearances for Iran, but will have a tough task against the far best defensive lineup he has faced in the tournament so far, and that without his usual partner in crime, Mehdi Taremi, who has shone in this tournament so far, but is serving a yellow card suspension.

Saman Ghoddos might be the first replacement coming to one’s mind, but it’s not unlikely that instead Carlos Queiroz will bring on dynamo Vahid Amiri as left-winger. Also the physically imposing Mehdi Torabi might be a good option to bind Sakai in defense and cover him well when going forward.

Alireza Jahanbakhsh should retain his starting lineup position, just like the rest of the squad that had impressively downed China 3-0 in quarter finals. Amiri could also return to central midfield instead of Ehsan Hajsafi, as well as Majid Hosseini making a return for Kanaanizadegan. Generally, the depth of Queiroz’s squad is good enough and the Portuguese unpredictable enough, that a switch on almost any position is possible without too much loss of quality.

Should Iran get past some of Asia’s finest players in their first semifinal appearance since 2004, the three-time tournament winners could build on their 100% record in Asian Cup final matches.

Iran – Japan
Asian Cup 2019 semifinal, Al Ain

Iran’s probable lineup: Beiranvand – Rezaeian, Pouraliganji, Kanaanizadegan, Mohammadi – Ebrahimi – Dejagah, Hajsafi – Jahanbakhsh, Amiri – Azmoun

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