Iran will meet pre-tournament favourites Japan in the Asian Cup quarter-finals after surviving extra time with 10 men before defeating Syria 5-3 on penalties on Wednesday.
Skipper Ehsan Hajsafi scored the winning penalty for Iran, who are ranked 70 places above Syria and were comfortably the better team for an hour of the last-16 game. Goalkeeper Alireza Beiranvand was the penalty hero, saving Syria’s second spot-kick.
Iran played the last 30 minutes with 10 men after Porto striker Mehdi Taremi was sent off for a second yellow card with the game 1-1 at the end of normal time.
Along with hosts and holders Qatar, Iran came into the game as the only team left in the competition with a 100 per cent record. They were pursuing their first Asian Cup crown since 1976. Taremi was a central figure, winning a first-half penalty and putting it away to give Iran a deserved lead.
Syria had barely been in the game but equalised just after the hour, also from the spot, before Taremi was sent off in second-half injury time. The two teams could not be divided in extra time, even with Iran playing with a man fewer.
Iran will meet Japan on Saturday after the pre-tournament favourites swept aside Bahrain 3-1 earlier in the day.
Coached by the wily Argentine Hector Cuper, Syria were in the knockout rounds for the first time at their seventh Asian Cup. They planned to sit deep and hit on the break at a raucous Abdullah bin Khalifa Stadium.
Midway through the first period, Iran danger man Mehdi Ghayedi had a go from outside the box, Syria goalkeeper Ahmad Madanieh palming it wide on the stretch. Playing off the left, Ghayedi then fed Taremi in the box but he failed to make a proper connection.
Moments later the 31-year-old Taremi was in the thick of it again when Syria defender Aiham Ousou shoved him in the back in the penalty area, sending the forward sprawling over. Taremi silenced the jeers of the Syrian supporters by stroking in the spot-kick on 34 minutes for his third goal of the tournament.
Syria, who advanced to the last 16 as one of the best four third-placed teams, had only one shot on target in the first half and the start of the second was more Iranian dominance.
Syria twice cleared off the line in quick succession and Madanieh also made two desperate saves. Cuper threw on Colombian-born Pablo Sabbag just before the hour and it paid off immediately, goalkeeper Beiranvand haring out of his goal and bringing the substitute down in the box.
The referee gave no penalty but changed his mind after VAR recommended he look at the pitchside monitor, and skipper Omar Khribin held his nerve for a 64th-minute equaliser. With the clock ticking beyond 90 minutes, Taremi – who had already been booked for diving in the box – received a second yellow for wiping out Alaa Al-Dali.