Coach: Branko Ivankovic (Croatia)
BEIJING - China booked their place in the final of the Asian Cup thanks to a 4-3 penalty shoot-out victory over Iran in an utterly absorbing semi-final in Beijing on Tuesday evening.
The hosts will meet Japan, the defending champions, in Saturday's final. It will be China's first appearance in the final of the Asian Cup since 1984.
Arie Haan's side took the lead after 19 minutes but, after being pegged back six minutes before the break, needed penalties to eventually get past the three-time champions, who were reduced to 10 men three minutes into the second half.
Following hard on the heels of Japan's dramatic penalty shoot-out win over Jordan in the quarter-final, millions of television viewers across China and around the world, as well as over 60,000 fans in the Bejing Workers' Stadium, watched Eman Mobali, who had only been on the pitch for three minutes, and Yahya Golmohammadi miss from the spot to send the hosts through.
In a dramatic and nerve-jangling finale, Branko Ivankovic's side seized the early initiative as Ali Daei and Medhi Mahdavikia notched either side of Zhao Junzhe's effort which was saved by Ebrahim Mirzapour.
Javad Nekounam scored with Iran's third to put the pressure Sun Xiang who scored with an unstoppable effort. After Mobali hit the bar, Siemens mobile Man of the Match Shao Jiayi scored to swing the balance in China's favour. Up stepped Golmohammadi, but Liu Yunfei guessed right and beat away the defender's chipped effort to spark jubilant scenes among China players, officials and fans.
It was hard not to feel sympathy for Iran, who had held out so valiantly after Sattar Zare was sent off on 48 minutes for pushing Shjao Jiayi three minutes into the second half.
But China, roared on by the home crowd, got their reward after dominating large periods of the game.
Keen to exploit Iran's defensive frailties down the flanks, China's Sun Xiang and Li Ming were a constant threat to the Iran defence and it was from a lightening quick foray down the left that China fashioned the opener after 19 minutes.
Sun Xiang broke before feeding Hao Haidong down the inside left channel. The evergreen striker, who left the fray injured after 29 minutes and must be a major doubt for the final, shaped to shoot, wrong footing Zare in the process, before cutting the ball into the path of Shao Jiayo whose first-time finish gave Mirzapour no chance.
With central midfielder Shao Jiayi getting forward to support China's front two, China surged forward after taking the lead and continued to threaten whenever they got the ball wide.
But the loss of Hoa Haidong after a clash with Mirzapour took the wind pout of China's sails and Iran profited on 39 minutes when Ali Karimi on the right touched the ball inside to Hossein Kaebi. His lay-off fell invitingly to Sayyed Alavi who fired home through a crowd of players from the edge of the box.
Iran had to play all but three minutes of the second half with 10 men after Zare was sent off for pushing Shao Jiayi to the ground as the pair squared up to one another off the ball. Television replays showed the 1860 Munich player had made the most of the situation.
Alavi, the goalscorer, was promptly withdrawn from the fray and replaced by Ali Badavi, as Iran reverted to a more orthodox back four.
It was backs-to-the-wall stuff for Ivankovic's men in the second half as China sought to make their numerical superiority tell, but Haan's side could not find a way past the massed ranks of the Iran defence.
Indeed it was Iran, whose attacking options were limited to long balls to Ali Daei and occasional forays by the indutrious Ali Karimi, who might well have taken the lead when 2003 AFC Player of the Year Mahdavikia got in front of his man to flash a header wide of Liu Yunfei's right-hand post.
On 81 minutes it was China's turn to waste a glorious opportunity to score when Sun Jihai, whose appearances in the tournament have been limited to cameos from the bench, dragged his shot horribly wide after Li Jinyu had chased the ball down from Mirzapour's parry.
The game, which had threatened to explode, finally did eight minutes from the end of normal time when Karimi, breaking down the middle and through on goal, was tripped by Zhang Yaokun. The Lebanese referee booked Zhang - much to the disappointment of the Iranian players who were expecting red - and showed a red card instead to goalscorer Alavi, by now watching from the bench, presumably for saying something to the fourth official.
In a frenetic climax, chances went begging for both sides. First Mahdavikia whipped in a cross from the right to Badavi at the far post but the Foulad player skewed his first-time effort narrowly wide.
Then, in added time, Shao Jiyai headed a long ball from the left into the path of Li Jinyu but the ball just wouldn't come down and the Shandong Luneng player scooped the ball over the bar from eight yards out.
China had the best of the first period of extra time, Mirzapour denying Yan Song with his legs and Li Jinyu dragging wide from 10 yards out after a fluffed clearance from Golmohammadi.
Then, with the last kick of the half, Sun Xiang rattled the Iran crossbar with a ferocious 25-yard drive.
It was the last real chance of the game as both sides conserved their energy for a finale few will forget.
1-0 Zhi Zheng
1-1 Junzhe Zhao (missed)
2-2 Xiaopeng Li
3-3 Xiang Sun
3-3 Mobali (missed)
4-3 Jiayi Shao
4-3 Golmohammadi (missed)