Iran well-poised to end Asian Cup drought
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 square up with Qatar 24 hours later in a clash bristling with political tension.
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 the 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 Samurai Blue 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 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 from local crowds over the Gulf blockade of the tiny, energy-rich state.
After ambushing South Korea, Felix Sanchez's side -who like Iran, have also yet to concede a goal - will back themselves to beat the Emiratis 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 Feb 1.
He said: "But we're not planning to stop at the semi-finals - we want to go further." - AFP