Japan, Australia tee up dream final
Saturday’s final of the AFC Asian Cup Qatar 2011 will pit three-time tournament winners Japan against Australia, who are making only their second appearance in the competition. The Samurai Blue won through courtesy of a penalty shoot-out victory over arch-rivals Korea Republic following a pulsating 2-2 draw, while the Socceroos made short work of Uzbekistan in the day’s second game, cantering to a 6-0 win.
Japan 2-2 Korea Republic (aet, Japan won 3-0 on penalties), Al Gharafa Stadium, Doha
Though the Japanese have made a habit of reaching continental finals, it was the South Koreans who worked the most dangerous openings of an even first half, with Lee Chung-Yong being denied by a last-ditch tackle when well placed. Not to be outdone, the Samurai Blue went close themselves when Shinji Okazaki headed against the post.
The Taeguk Warriors eventually opened the scoring 23 minutes in, Ki Sung-Yueng coolly converting from the spot. That was the prelude to a period of South Korean pressure that almost brought another goal when Koo Ja-Cheol headed narrowly over the bar. Cho Kwang-Rae’s men paid for their profligacy nine minutes before the break, however, with Ryoichi Maeda shooting the Japanese level from inside the box. The Jubilo Iwata striker then spurned a chance to put his side ahead right on half-time.
Though the opportunities continued to flow after the restart, neither side could break through. And when extra time came around, Alberto Zaccheroni’s charges promptly took the lead, the alert Hajime Hosogai lashing in a loose ball after Korea Republic keeper Jung Sung-Ryong had kept out Daisuke Honda’s penalty.
Japan’s organised defence expertly protected their hard-won lead as time began to run out for the South Koreans. Yet with just seconds remaining, they failed to clear the danger from a free-kick, allowing Hwang Jae-Won the time and the space to thread a precise shot through a forest of legs and send a gripping encounter to penalties.
No sooner had they kept their hopes alive, however, than the Koreans were out, their nerve deserting them from the spot as the Japanese recorded an ultimately comfortable 3-0 shoot-out win to check into Saturday’s grand finale.
Australia 6-0 Uzbekistan, Khalifa International Stadium, Doha
Though it was no real surprise to see the Australians prevail in this battle of the first-time semi-finalists, few expected them to do so in quite such emphatic fashion.
In the end their greater experience told. Dominating from the off, the Socceroos took an early lead through Harry Kewell, with AFC Player of the Year Sasa Ognenovski capitalising on some slack Uzbek marking to double their advantage ten minutes from the break. Having failed to make any headway in the opening 45 minutes, Vadim Abramov’s men pushed forward in the second half in a bid to cut the deficit. Revelling in the extra space afforded them up front, the Aussies went 3-0 up when defender David Carney kept his composure to slide the ball under Uzbek keeper Temur Djuraev.
Ulugbek Bakaev’s sending-off moments later put paid to any hope of a White Wolves comeback. Showing no mercy for their depleted opponents, the Australians helped themselves to three more goals in the closing stages, as Brett Emerton, Carl Valeri and Robbie Kruse all got on the scoresheet to complete a comprehensive win that will do their morale no harm ahead of Saturday’s showdown with the Japanese.
Eiji Kawashima, Japan
Though goalkeeper Kawashima had already served notice of his talent between the posts at Qatar 2011, he saved his best work to date for the meeting with the South Koreans. After making five fine saves during normal and extra time and picking himself up from the disappointment of conceding a last-minute equaliser, Kawashima then set about the job of easing his side’s frayed nerves in the dreaded shoot-out. His agility denied Korea Republic’s first two penalty takers, increasing the pressure on Hong Jeong-Ho, who fired wide with attempt number three to all but gift Japan a place in the final.
6 - The number of goals Australia racked up against Uzbekistan, surpassing Bahrain’s 5-0 defeat of India in the group phase as the largest scoreline of the tournament. It was Australia's biggest win since joining the AFC dating back to a 7-0 victory against the Solomon Islands in September 2005.
A twist in the tale
With extra time almost up in the day’s opening semi-final, Korea Republic dragged themselves off the canvas to send their tie against Japan into a penalty decider, defender Hwang Jae-Won gleefully slamming home after a desperate scramble in the Japanese box.
Australia had their shooting boots on when they faced the Uzbeks, with every single one of their 14 goal attempts hitting the target.
Japan’s spot-kick revenge
Japan could have been excused for fearing the worst when their South Korean rivals secured a dramatic last-minute equaliser in extra time. Four years the Taeguk Warriors pipped them to third place after winning a taut shoot-out decider. There was to be no repeat this time, however, as Japan held their nerve to avenge that 2007 defeat and advance to the final.
What they said
“What a tough match. We were the better side in the first half and missed three good chances. It was a different story after the break, though. The South Koreans mixed up their passing really well and made the most of their superb fitness. They played a great game. I’m a very happy man tonight because we’ve beaten what is undoubtedly the best team in Asia,” Alberto Zaccheroni, Japan coach.
“All I can do is thank my players for all their hard work. This is the second game in a row we’ve had to play extra time and we battled until the end. We dominated the match and kept on believing right till the final second. We’ve shown the world can now see how much South Korean football has come on. As for penalties, we’d been practising them but the players looked worn out to me. That’s probably why we came up short,” Cho Kwang-Rae, Korea Republic coach.