Iran coin a quarter
Holders Japan overcame a strong challenge from Iran - and more catcalls from Chinese fans - to secure their passage into the Asian Cup quarter-finals as group winners yesterday while brave Oman bowed out.
Japan, who had already booked their place in the last eight, needed only a point to win Group D and duly claimed it with a 0-0 draw against the Iranians, who also went through to the knockout stages as runners-up.
The Japanese will now play Jordan in the quarter-finals on Saturday while Iran advance to a heavyweight showdown against South Korea, who beat them at the same stage of the competition in 2000.
Japan's point means they will play their quarter-final in Chongqing, where they have had a hostile reception from local Chinese fans throughout the tournament.
Once again, the Japanese players were subjected to boos and jeers by a crowd of around 45,000, and coach Zico acknowledged the intimidating atmosphere was hard on his team.
"It appears that Japan is not welcome in Chongqing," said the Brazilian legend. "This has been tough on our team."
Zico praised his side for doing enough to clinch the group. "Our goal was to win the group and I'm pleased that we managed to play well enough to do it."
Japan and Iran's stalemate sent Oman tumbling out. The Omanis defeated Thailand 2-0 but had needed Japan to beat Iran in Chongqing in order to have a chance of inching by the Persians on goal difference.
The exit was a bitter pill for Oman, who had led Iran last Saturday only to be denied by a controversial injury-time equalizer, a goal that ultimately cost them a place in the quarter-finals.
Iran, who saw three members of their defence suspended in the wake of the stormy match with Oman, rallied impressively to test the Japanese, much to the delight of coach Branko Ivankovic.
"We had some problems before and during this match," the veteran Croat said, referring to the suspensions. "I'm happy we played so well tonight."
Ivankovic said the controversy over Iran's draw with Oman - which saw team-mates fighting each other and another commit a brutal foul - was now water under the bridge.
Iran started slowly against Japan before going on to dominate much of the second half.
They were unlucky not to have been awarded a penalty on 61 minutes when Asian footballer of the year Mehdi Mahdavikia was brought down in the box by Takashi Fukunishi. Australian referee Mark Shield waved away Iranian appeals.
Moments later Iran skipper Ali Daei missed the target from eight yards out with Kawaguchi nowhere.
The closing minutes finished farcically, with both sides content to run down the clock for a draw.