Saudi Arabia kept their quest for a fourth continental title well on track as they overcame a formidable Japan 3-2 in Wednesday's epic semi-final at Hanoi's My Dinh National Stadium. The Saudis will now line up on Sunday in an all-West Asian Final against Gulf neighbours Iraq, who stunned Korea Republic with a shootout victory in the earlier game.
While the semi victory provides coach Hélio dos Anjos' team with a chance to become the first team to win the tournament four times, it is also a bit of sweet revenge against fellow AFC giants Japan, who won the title at the Saudis' expense on two occasions (1992 and 2000).
In what was the finals' most entertaining match so far, Japan twice came from behind to level the score, with central defending duo Yuji Nakazawa and Yuki Abe scoring in each half to cancel out goals by Yasser Al Qahtani and Malek Maaz. Malek proved to be the Saudi hero on the night as he scored the winner after 57 minutes.
In a lackluster earlier match, a determined-looking Iraq held Korea Republic to a goalless draw for 120 minutes, forcing the contest to a penalty shootout. Korea Republic, winners of a shootout against Uzbekistan in their quarter-final, couldn't find the formula this time around and went crashing out of the competition.
The meeting between Japan and Saudi Arabia represented a top-tier meeting of Asian football's biggest nations. The two sides having dominated the past six editions since 1984, each lifting the trophy three times, but Japan went into the contest with psychological edge.
Coach Ivica Osim proved the more creative of the bosses as his Japan laid siege to the Saudi goal in the opening stages, with both Yuji Nakazawa and Seiichiro Maki coming close to opening the scoring.
But as the Japanese heaped on the pressure, the Saudis took the lead against the run of play through captain Yasser Al Qahtani, who unleashed a lightning strike past keeper Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi. However, the West Asians' joy lasted only two minutes as Nakazawa hammered a powerful header into the back of the net.
Saudi Arabia had a bright start to the second half that saw them restore the lead through Malek, who nodded in an Ahmed Al Bahari cross. But the celebrations were short-lived again when Abe leveled with a spectacular bicycle kick.
With defending champs Japan pressing hard for the winner, Malek, who impressed throughout the entire game, laid claim to the goal that sent his team through and took him level with Japanese striker Naohiro Takahara and teammate Al Qahtani at the top of the scoring charts with four goals.
Coach Hélio dos Anjos could not hide his excitement after the on-pitch celebrations finished. "I am very happy with the victory because it was over one of the best teams on the continent." Looking ahead to the Final against Iraq - coached by his countryman Jorvan Vieira - he believes it will be a tricky match.
"It is nice that while the two finalists are from the Arab school they are both being coached by Brazilians."
Having shocked Australia 3-1 in the second group match, Iraq held onto their tag as tournament surprise packages by stunning two-time Asian champions Korea Republic to reach the final for the first time in their history.
With this ground-breaking achievement, the team managed to put a smile back on the faces of many of the suffering peoples across the war-torn nation.
In an evenly contested match, Korea Republic had the lion's share of possession but Iraq produced the most dangerous chances in front of goal.
Iraq went a whisker from scoring after 62 minutes when Nashat Akram's free kick fell into the path of Hawar Mohammed, who could only strike wide. Mohammed should have killed off the game before the first extra-time period when Mahdi Karim caught goalkeeper Lee Woon-jae out with a cross, but the Al Ain playmaker's volley splattered off the post.
With neither side able to score in regular and extra time, a penalty shootout was needed - and Iraq eventually pulled through.
Coach Vieira attributed the victory to the team's fighting spirit. "The Korean players were down on fitness and we were also very tired," he said. "But my boys worked hard and it was a match that should never be forgotten."
He also called on the Iraqi fans to support the team in the final. "We are in the final now, we are still here and you have to support us for one more game."
One interested spectator at the both the the match for third place and the final will be FIFA President Joseph S. Blatter.
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