Spirited Japan seal Asian Cup glory
A major final, 90 minutes of goalless action settled by a fine goal in the second period of extra-time? Sound familiar? But this was no World Cup final bore-fest, Japan's 1-0 win over Australia in the final of the 2011 Asian Cup in Qatar, was a breathless match and a worthy end to any tournament.
For the most part it was entertaining end-to-end stuff with the only surprise being how a big crowd at Doha's Khalifa Stadium had to wait 109 minutes for a goal. When it came it was a stunner as substitute Tadanari Lee volleyed home in spectacular style for his first for Japan in only his second-ever appearance. It had to be special to beat Mark Schwarzer in goal who could only stand and watch and wonder, perhaps, how a team that conceded twice in the entire tournament was soon to be heading home empty-handed.
Perhaps we should never had doubted Japan after their slow start against Jordan three weeks ago. They are now managed by an Italian after all. Alberto Zaccheroni has been in the job less than six months but knows well that titles are not won in the First Round. Samurai Blue have displayed an Azzurri-like ability to improve game by game. They may not have been at their fluid best in the final, Australia had something to do with that, but the team are worthy champions of Asia and have now collected a record fourth title.
Zaccheroni could hardly have imagined when he ended his short spell at Juventus last summer that he would soon be leading a team to become champions of the world's biggest continent. "This was a fantastic win and Japan are a fantastic team," he told Japanese television after the match. "Australia were a really strong side and we had to do really well to beat them. Everyone was tired, but we overcame that through fantastic team spirit."
It wasn't the introduction of Lee that was the gamechanger, it was his reorganization of the struggling Japanese defence midway through the second half that reduced the Australian aerial threat while sending the dangerous Yuto Nagatomo past the half-way line on a permanent basis.
Australia will feel hard done by. The Socceroos had the chances to win a first major trophy and to concede a goal after 109 minutes was heartbreaking. Especially so as the likes of Tim Cahill, Mark Schwarzer, Lucas Neill, Brett Emerton and Harry Kewell, all great performers in Qatar, are all the wrong side of 30 and unlikely to get many more chances for international glory.
Talking to former the national team coach of Japan, and many other countries, Philippe Troussier ahead of the game, he was of the opinion that unlike their opponents, Australia are a team that don't need to control the game to win. They may not need to but they did for much of the first-half. From the whistle, the Socceroos streamed forward in an attempt to do to Japan what they did to Uzbekistan in the semi-final - seal the deal early doors. Chances were created; Matt McKay should have scored before 100 seconds were on the clock and Harry Kewell and Tim Cahill also had opportunities.
Corner flags know they are in for a pummeling when Cahill plays against Japan as four of his 23 international goals have come against Samurai Blue. The Everton star was hanging in the air longer than the smell of Mild Seven cigarettes in a packed Tokyo Izakaya and more than once in the first 30 minutes he caused problems. At the other end, Japan were struggling to penetrate a well-organised Aussie defence that had conceded just one goal in the previous 480 minutes of 2011 Asia Cup action.
The second half started in a similar vein to the first with Australia on top. Luke Wilkshire's cross from the right caused all sorts of problems for Kawashima in the Japanese goal who allowed the ball to bounce off the crossbar with Kewell and Cahill lurking.
Then it came time for Zaccheroni's intervention just before the hour. The dominance of the Socceroos in the air forced the Italian to bring on central defender Daiki Iwasama for Shinji Kagawa's replacement Jungo Fujimoto. That allowed the coach to switch Yasuyuki Konno to the left and push Nagatomo forward. It worked and almost immediately Nagatomo was making chances. Still, Kewell had the best of the game shortly after as he raced free of Iwasama to bear down on goal only to see his save rebound off Kawashima's outstretched boot.
Into extra-time we went - though slowly as both teams looked tired. Japan had played two hours against South Korea just three days previously. Australia's older legs were feeling heavy and heavily-strapped in Cahill's case. Chances kept coming and going and penalties looked likely. When the breakthrough came, it was a thing to behold. Substitute Lee was left unmarked eight yards out in the penalty area but still had work to do to volley Nagatomo's cross into the left side of the Australia net.
For Japan, the future looks brighter than Lee's pink boots. One of the youngest teams at the tournament is only going to get better. For Australia, surely a rebuilding period is imminent. Many of the old guard will not be around for Brazil 2014, let alone Australia 2015 and over the next year or so, coach Osieck will get the chance to find out how much strength there really is down under.
Man of the Match: Yuto Nagatomo - The key to the game. Pushing the former FC Tokyo man forward midway through the second half was the masterstroke from Zaccheroni. Immediately, the Cesena man looked dangerous down the left and it was his cross that made the winning goal.
Japan Verdict: Samurai Blue will play better and lose but this was a fighting performance. There wasn't much of the famous Japan pass and move groove but 'Zac's pack' hung in there and battled when Australia were on top. The team is too good to be second best for a full match and slowly but surely Japan edged their way back into the game. In a match such as this, the team that takes the chance when it comes wins. And that was what Japan did and finally, real revenge was served for the 2006 World Cup defeat.
Australia verdict: Hugely disappointing result for Australia though the performance was far from that. The Socceroos will look back at a game that they did enough to win. Since their Asian ascension, the team has often managed to win without playing well. On Saturday evening, Holger Osieck's men achieved the opposite and there were many positives to take.