Japan unearth double gold
© AFP

A goal from defender Yuki Saneto ensured Japan ended a long-wait to be crowned Asian Games football champions as the Junior Blue Samurai edged the United Arab Emirates in Thursday’s final. The history-making success mirrored that of the Japan women’s team who prevailed over Korea DPR three days earlier with an identical scoreline for their maiden victory.

The road to the decider in the men’s competition, which was an Under-23s tournament, proved a bumpy one for both finalists. Japan, who put five unanswered goals past India in the Round of 16, managed only a 1-0 win against Thailand in the quarter-finals before an impressive 2-1 comeback victory over Iran. The UAE, for their part, made it through with a series of resolute performances, which included seeing off Korea DPR on penalties before upsetting Korea Republic with a solitary-goal triumph after extra time.

The final at Guangzhou's Tianhe Stadium got off to an explosive start with Theyab Awana and Omar Abdulrahman threatening the Japan goal inside ten minutes. At the other end striking prodigy Kensuke Nagai forced Ali Housani into action before Kota Mizunuma shot straight at the UAE custodian.

The west Asians should have taken the lead three minutes into the second half with Ahmed Khalil crashing his effort onto the crossbar with a close-range shot. It was to prove a pivotal moment as Saneto fired home from an acute angle 17 minutes from time for a famous winner.

Our team were united for the common cause and it was the team spirit that carried us through.
Japan coach Takashi Sekizuka

“I would thank my players for the success as all of them excelled during the tournament,” said Japan coach Takashi Sekizuka. “Our team were united for the common cause and it was the team spirit that carried us through.”

It was however a bitter ending for losing semi-finalists Korea Republic and Iran. Boasting Park Chu-Young and Kim Jung-Woo who both featured prominently during the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™, the Taeguk Warriors entered the competition seeking to win their fourth continental title. But despite a talented squad they failed to breach UAE’s tightly-knit rearguard and fell to Ahmed Ali Alabry’s extra-time strike.

It was even more disappointing for four-time winners Iran. Things went from bad to worse for Team Melli in the play off for third-place as they threw away a two-goal lead with 12 minutes remaining to lose 4-3 against Korea Republic.

Road to London
Since 2002 only U-23 players have been eligible for the men’s competition in the Asian Games, with three overage players permitted. Needless to say, the Asian Games provided all 24 competing nations with a precious chance to take stock of their squads ahead of the continental qualifying for London 2012, which commences in February.

Japan will have the most cause for optimism having won all seven matches without the inclusion of any overage players. In the process new stars were unearthed with forward Nagai the most notable. The Fukuoka University striker scored five times including netting the match-winning goal against Iran to top the tournament's scoring chart.

Also featuring an entirely U-23 side were the UAE who impressed despite falling at the final hurdle. Spearheading their attack was 2008 AFC Youth Player of the Year Ahmed Khalil, who was on target three times in helping steer his side to the final.

Korea Republic will take solace from the displays of some of their young talents. Koo Ja-Cheol, who had a trial with English Premiership side Blackburn Rovers last January, finished his side's second top-scorer with three goals, one goal shy of Park Chu-Young. With his excellent display throughout, the 21-year-old Jeju United midfielder, nicknamed the "Red Card", is already being heralded among the nation's brightest young stars.