Zaccheroni: Confidence was key
© AFP

Japan coach Alberto Zaccheroni has saluted his players' nerve and the reflexes of goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima after they beat Korea Republic 3-0 on penalties to reach the final of the AFC Asian Cup.

The Blue Samurai, who are gunning for a record fourth continental title, had been leading 2-1 with a minute to play in extra-time on Tuesday, before Hwang Jae-Won lashed home a dramatic equaliser to take the game to a shoot-out. It was Japan who held their nerve from 12 yards, however, with Yuto Nagatomo the only Japanese player who failed to find the net as Zaccheroni's side swept into Saturday's final against Australia.

Kawashima had been criticised for a wobbly display in the 3-2 quarter-final win over Qatar, but he stepped up to the mark by saving penalties from South Korean pair Koo Ja-Cheol and Lee Jong-Rae, with Hong Jeong-Ho shooting wide. "Before the penalties I told the players to forget the goal we conceded at the end. I told them to take their penalties with confidence," said Zaccheroni.

"There are no goalkeepers who don't make mistakes. They don't exist. A few days ago I told Kawashima that I have faith in him, and I told him the same thing Tuesday. He did more than I expected."

Before the penalties I told the players to forget the goal we conceded at the end. I told them to take their penalties with confidence.
Alberto Zaccheroni

Kawashima said that he was simply doing his job. "Over 120 minutes, every player worked really hard so I was thinking that when it came to penalties, it was going to be my time to work," the 27-year-old Lierse goalkeeper told the tournament website. "I saw that everybody's head was down and the atmosphere was a bit strange because we had conceded the goal so close to the end of the game. But I knew it was not finished so I just focussed on the penalties."

Keisuke Honda put Japan 1-0 up in the shoot-out, despite having seen a penalty early in extra-time saved by Korea Republic goalkeeper Jung Sung-Ryong. His blushes were saved on that occasion when substitute Hajime Hosogai reacted sharply to thrash home the rebound and put Japan 2-1 up, but the CSKA Moscow playmaker admitted he was relieved to find the net in the shoot-out.

"Everyone can mis-hit a penalty. But I was determined to put it away when I took the first kick in the shoot-out. I was glad it went in," Honda told Japanese media. "The result is all that counts. And it made me feel that I've still got what it takes."

Honda, the man of the match, praised Zaccheroni for instilling confidence in him but said the team's victory would count for nothing if they did not follow it up by prevailing in the final. "I think we conceded the (last) goal due to our lack of freshness," said Honda.

"But we out-fought South Korea in the penalties in such a tough situation and this match showed everyone that we have grown so much in this tournament. Every match has been very tough and we have come through some close battles. We have come this far and it won't mean anything if we don't come home with the trophy."