January 31 – Ten-man Iran survived a major scare against Syria winning 5-3 on penalties following a 1-1 draw to complete the quarter-final lineup of the Asian Cup. Sent off, Mehdi Taremi will have to sit out the last-eight clash with Japan.
The Iranians join Qatar, Australia, Japan and South Korea as one of five teams who have won the continental crown in the quarter-finals, but they got there the hard way, a victory over against a valiant Syria costing them blood, sweat, tears and Taremi, who was red carded in the 90th minute following a second caution.
Iran almost seemed to confirm their unique quality for self-destruction in this 120-minute rollercoaster ride, conceding an equaliser from the penalty spot and seeing their star man depart, but they remained perfect in the penalty shootout to come good in the end.
Manager Amir Ghalenoei enforced three changes with Rouzbeh Chesmi dropping into the backline while Hector Cuper kept faith in the eleven that defeated India to secure passage to the last 16. The Syrians had been very robust in a 4-4-2 formation in the group stages, conceding just a single goal, but up against the firepower of both Mehdi Taremi and Sardar Azmoun they faced the ultimate test in what was their first-ever appearance in the knockout stages of the Asian Cup.
The Syrians pressed hard to disrupt Iran’s passing early on and it took the Iranians some time to settle and string together meaningful passes. In the 8th minute, Azmoun got in behind the opposing backline for the first time, but he was flagged offside.
By the halfway mark of the first half, Iran enjoyed 77% possession, but, like Australia, India and Uzbekistan, they struggled to break down the Syrian defence. Mehdi Ghaedi and Ehsan Hajsafi attempted shots from outside the box, but goalkeeper Ahmad Madania stood tall. His counterpart Alireza Beiranvand was largely a spectator as Iran’s pressure grew.
Even if they failed to create chances, Iran found a way through when they were awarded a penalty in the 33rd minute after Aiham Ousou dragged down Taremi inside the box. The striker sent the keeper the wrong way as he slid the ball to the right, 1-0. It was Taremi’s 45th goal in international football.
The Iranians were now firmly in the driving seat. Having scored just one goal in the first round, Syria were left to chase the game with an hour on the board but did not abandon their formation and organisation.
In a rare foray forward, Moayad Ajaan rifled a shot at goal for Cuper’s men. At the other end, Azmoun should have done better after stealing possession, but he dawdled on the ball in a 3-vs-2 situation.
With Iran still running the match in the second half, Azmoun remained in the thick of the action, firstly finding the goalkeeper on his way when clean through and then getting thwarted by Syria’s last defender Aiham Ousou, who cleared his downward header off the line. There was no respite for Syria as Alireza Jahanbakhsh sent Taremi on his way, but his chip did not deceive the Syrian number one.
On the hour mark, Syria were given a lifeline when Beiranvand took out substitute Pablo Sabbag. Omar Khrbin converted the spot kick to draw level and sent the Syrian fans into a frenzy.
Stung, the Iranians sprung back into action, pressing in a bid to restore their lead. Jahanbakhsh drove at goal, Azmoun let fly a few finishes without too much conviction and the best opportunity fell to substitute Ali Gholizadeh, who, following a double pass, opened up his body to curl the ball to the far post but without success.
In a measure of Iran’s frustration, Taremi was booked for diving in the box and his evening soon turned into a nightmare when he was giving his marching orders in the 90th minute for a foul on Alaa Dali to prevent a Syrian counterattack. It was a moment of madness from the Porto striker that cost his team. Suddenly, Iran were on the back foot and Syria smelled blood with a pinball moment in the opposing box almost winning the match in injury time.
How the game had changed and the three-time champions were hanging on for dear life. Ghalenoei took off the sluggish Azmoun for Karim Ansarifard, one of Iran’s most experienced players.
In extra time, neither side could find a decisive pass in the final third. Syria maintained their great work and discipline, and as both goals had been scored from the penalty spot it was little surprise and somewhat fitting that the match meandered toward a shootout.
The Iranians were perfect from the penalty spot, captain Ehsan Hajisafi firing home the fifth penalty to complete the set and send his team into the last eight. Beiranvand had saved Fahad Youssef’s spot kick.
It was sheer agony for Syria, whose conservative approach had taken them to within a whisker of the last eight. Taremi, meanwhile, burst into tears. His suspension sidelines him from the quarter-final blockbuster against Japan.
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