By Nick Mulvenney
ABU DHABI, Jan 24 (Reuters) – Regional heavyweights Iran underlined their Asian Cup title credentials with a comfortable 3-0 victory over Marcello Lippi’s China on Thursday to reach the semi-finals of the continental championship for the first time since 2004.
Goals from forwards Mehdi Taremi, Sardar Azmoun and Karim Ansarifard combined with a record-equalling fifth straight clean sheet was enough to set up a last four date with four-times champions Japan in Al Ain next Monday.
Outmuscled by the physical Iranians and embarrassed by a series of defensive howlers, China ended World Cup-winning coach Lippi’s reign with barely a whimper at the Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium.
“It’s been a great honour and I tried my best to improve the team,” the Italian said. “I was really hoping to end this experience in a better way but you cannot make these kinds of mistakes against a strong team like Iran.”
Iran coach Carlos Queiroz said it had not been an easy victory.
“We had a strong team in front of us coached by one of the best ever football coaches,” the Portuguese said.
“I’m very happy with my players. They created great energy to put the Chinese team under pressure all the time and force them to make mistakes. Then we took advantage.”
The lively Iranian forward line were allowed far too much space from the start, and winger Alireza Jahanbakhsh sent a cross-shot whistling past the post in the fourth minute.
The massed ranks of Iran fans did not have to wait long for the first goal, which came in the 18th minute from the simplest of long balls up the middle.
China defender Feng Xiaoting hesitated and Azmoun pounced, taking his time to turn before sliding the ball across the area to the unmarked Mehdi, who had all the time in the world to stroke it into the net.
Mehdi looked unlucky not to get a penalty three minutes later but the match official resisted Iranian pleas that he check with the video assistant referee (VAR), newly installed for the quarter-finals.
Feng was hauled off in the 28th minute, but two minutes later another Chinese defender was deceived by a long ball, Azmoun wrestling his way past Liu Yiming before rounding goalkeeper Yan Junling and slotting the ball into the net from an angle.
China came out with a little more purpose after the break and substitute Xiao Zhi ballooned a header over the bar but they were still caught in possession too often and Iranian goalkeeper Alireza Beiranvand snuffed out anything too dangerous.
Fullback Ehsan Hajsafi drilled a low shot towards the China goal on the hour mark that Yan did well to push away and it looked like, as in their last 16 match against Oman at the same stadium, Iran would be unable to score after the break.
In stoppage time, however, Mehdi robbed China’s Shi Ke on the halfway line and his pass sent Ansarifard clear to put the gloss on another emphatic step towards ending Iran‘s 43-year wait for a fourth continental title.
(Reporting by Nick Mulvenney, editing by Toby Davis and Hugh Lawson)