Brazilian coach Nelsinho hailed the "evolution" of Japanese football after his Kashiwa Reysol side gave his former club, the South American champions Santos, a fright at the FIFA Club World Cup Japan 2011.
A Santos side boasting 19-year-old prodigy Neymar needed a cracker from the young forward and two other sublime finishes from Borges and Danilo, the latter from a free-kick, to claim a probable final meeting with Barcelona. The Brazilians ran out 3-1 winners in Wednesday's semi-final, the impressive defender Hiroki Sakai grabbing the Japanese champions' goal at Toyota Stadium.
But it was far closer than the scoreline suggested, statistics showing Kashiwa had more possession and more shots - 14 to Santos' eight - particularly late on, when the Japanese squandered several clear chances. Substitute Masakatsu Sawa was especially culpable, striking the Santos post and lashing the ball over when it seemed easier to score.
A proud Nelsinho, who guided Kashiwa from second-tier obscurity to the J.League crown in just two seasons, said his side's stubborn performance was proof football in the Asian country had improved greatly. "Japanese football is really growing and developing, especially the young players are growing," said Nelsinho, for whom the rookie defender Sakai, a product of Kashiwa's youth team, excelled.
The exciting 21-year-old attacking right full-back has been linked with a move to Santos. "I worked in Japan in the 1990s and I'd say there's been quite a huge evolution in the players," said Nelsinho. "Compared with the technical ability of the Brazilian players we still have some deficiencies but we played some good football today."
Nelsinho, a Santos defender in his day who played later the coach of the South American giants - who was also a room-mate of his opposite number Muricy Ramalho - added: "This was a really good performance. We are a very young team but we were able to create a lot of chances today.
"In the first half there were two careless mistakes but in the second half we tried to change the way we play and were able to score with a set-piece. We pushed for the draw but then lost the third goal. Our defence was very good despite conceding three goals."
The Copa Libertadores champions Santos face a possible meeting with Barcelona in the weekend final of the tournament. Europe's finest face Qatar's Al-Sadd in the second semi-final today, with the losers to play Kashiwa, who are based in Chiba, near Tokyo.