Japan's next generation of stars have staked their respective claims for a berth in the nation’s 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™ squad, after an experimental side dethroned holders China PR to clinch their first-ever EAFF East Asian Cup title in dramatic fashion. An opening 3-3 draw against the Chinese was followed by two narrow wins over Australia and hosts Korea Republic as Alberto Zaccheroni's team emerged tournament victors for the first time.
Fielding entirely home-based players - one third of whom were uncapped heading into the competition - the Italian was aiming to blood some new players amid the cut and thrust of international football. And his young charges opened brightly, leading China 3-1 on the hour-mark only to see the defending champions draw level with two late strikes to steal a point in the opener.
With Zaccheroni's new-look side beginning to gel, they proved largely dominant against tournament debutants Australia in securing a 3-2 victory. The closing match saw Samurai Blue edge hosts Korea Republic 2-1 to clinch the championship with tournament top-scorer Yoichiro Kakitani scoring in each half. The raw statistics, however, do not tell the full story with Japan’s crucial second goal coming in injury time of a winner-takes-all contest, while a draw would have seen Samurai Blue level on all counts alongside the Chinese, and requiring a countback on yellow and red cards to determine a tournament winner.
"I’m really happy," said an ecstatic Zaccheroni. "This tournament has turned out to be a very positive one for us. Most of our players were new to the national team, but they understood my message and the philosophy of our team and displayed that on the pitch.
"It’s also a good sign for Japanese football as we were able to show that we have such good players in Japan. I hope they can continue working hard and become good competitors for the current regular players on our national team."
New stars shine brightly
Indeed, the former Juventus coach's confidence was not unfounded with a host of under-23 talents unearthed on their full international debut. Kakitani emerged Japan's biggest revelation of the campaign with three goals from two matches. His Cerezo Osaka team-mate Hotaru Yamaguchi, meanwhile, earned the tournament's Most Valued Player award for his outstanding creative displays.
Forward Yuya Osako, too, excelled including completing a brace against Australia, while Kashiwa Reysol marksman Masato Kudo continued his fine club form, netting one and setting up another against China.
With just one goal scored and two points gained, new Korea Republic boss Hong Myungbo saw his first competition in charge end in disappointing fashion, on the scoreboard at least. In all three games the hosts, cheered on by their vociferous home crowd, enjoyed the lion's share of possession and fashioned out numerous chances only to lack the necessary accuracy and aplomb to convert.
Still, Hong's new boys, captained by FC Seoul midfielder Ha Daesung, provided a silver lining through their youthful exuberance and relentless attacking play. The 21-year-old Yun Illok - who figured prominently at the 2009 FIFA U-17 World Cup as Korea Republic progressed into the last eight - turned in a dynamic showing against Japan, highlighted by his blistering long-range effort on the half-hour to equalise.
Despite finishing bottom in their debut East Asian Cup, Holger Osieck's Australia returned home with some positives, thanks to the bright showing of several young attackers. The tournament debutants, who edged past Korea DPR to qualify last December, never gave up without fight although they found themselves on their back foot in all three games.
Mitchell Duke and Tomi Juric, both of whom earned their first international call-up, earned a deserved reward for some tireless endeavour as each scored late on with Australia coming from behind to draw level against Japan, only to see Osako score the match-winner just as the spoils seemed set to be shared. Duke was again on target against China, striking in stoppage-time to put the game on a knife's edge in a 4-3 thriller.
Despite conceding the championship to Japan, it proved a redemptive campaign for China who arrived in Seoul in the wake of their disastrous 5-1 home friendly loss to Thailand last month; a result which cost Spaniard Jose Antonio Camacho his job. Under stand-in manager Fu Bo, the holders battled from two goals down to draw 3-3 with Japan in the opener and, after holding hosts Korea Republic to a goalless tie, they rounded off the competition with a resounding defeat of Australia.
Both Dalian Aerbin forward Yu Dabao and Shandong Luneng midfielder Wang Yongbo impressed against Japan, with the latter twice converting spot-kicks. Yu continued his form against Australia including opening the scoring inside five minutes, but it was a young trio that stole the show. Sun Ke capitalised on a rebound to make it 2-1 in China's favour, while Zhang Xizhe came close on more than one occasions. Having had a hand in their second goal, 21-year-old Wu Lei made it 4-1 by breaking his international duck with a fine solo effort.
"These young players have long played key roles with their respective clubs," said coach Fu. "The East Asian Cup provided them with a good chance to gain international experiences. It may remain premature to predict whether they will become icons, but they will surely form the backbone of the future national team."