Saturday, January 22, 2011
Asia settles on Final Four
Usually, you wouldn't read too much into a game that is won by a team ranked 29th in the world against the one in 105th - even if it was at the home of the underdogs - but Japan's 3-2 triumph over hosts Qatar in the quarter-final of the 2011 Asian Cup was no run-of-the-mill clash. The game was not only a deserved victory for Japan in a hugely entertaining match but it marked the time when Samurai Blue showed that they have the mentality as well as the ability to justify their billing as favourites to win the title for a record fourth time.
Playing the host nation is never easy and having your two main defenders absent injured, before one of the replacements is harshly sent off with a third of the match remaining, doesn't help. But that was all forgotten in the last minute as Japan scored to take the lead for the first time. Under Alberto Zaccheroni, the East Asians never know when they are defeated and in three of the four games so far, they have scored vital goals late in the game.
After the slow start against Jordan, ten goals have come in the following three matches as the team has clicked into gear, going forward at least. The defence does not match the miserly outfit of South Africa - it is missing two centre-backs Yuji Nakazawa and Marcos Tulio Tanaka - and it was also vulnerable to fast counter-attacks. More than once, especially early in the game, Qatar were able to get behind the backline with surprising ease.
With the score tied at 1-1, the game looked up just after the hour when Maya Yoshida was shown a second yellow card for what was a perfectly good tackle. By the time the Netherlands-based defender - who has had quite an interesting tournament with own goals, last minute winners and now red cards - had reached the bench, goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima somehow allowed Fabio Cesar's free-kick to creep in at the near post, to spark wild scenes of celebration among the home fans at the Al Gharafa Stadium.
But Syria would attest that even with ten men, Japan are capable of scoring and that is exactly what happened with the Italian on the sidelines waving his men forward. Shinji Kagawa had been fairly quiet in the group stage but was head and shoulders above the rest. The Borussia Dortmund star, for a star he now is, cancelled out Sebastian Soria's early opener with a close-range header. He did the same seven minutes after Qatar's second to break free in the area and drive a shot past Qasem Burhan.
Extra-time was looming when the impressive Makoto Hasebe picked out Kagawa just inside the area with a delightful diagonal pass. There was still work to do and the third time Kagawa was fouled, the loose ball fell to Masahiko Inoha to score a dramatic winner in his first international start.
For Qatar it marks a satisfactory end to the tournament. After the 2-0 defeat at the hands of Uzbekistan in the opening match, the worst was feared. But Bruno Metsu's men bounced back to progress in comfortable fashion but met a team that was too good for them in the shape of Japan. The last eight was the target with anything else a bonus.
That wasn't the case for Iran or South Korea, two giants of Asia who have waited too long since their last title, a combined total of 86 years. Indeed, it felt for a time that they could play for almost that length of time and not score. Korea bossed the first half but Iran edged themselves back into the game after the restart and by extra-time, the place in the last four was up for grabs. As the two fought each other to a standstill, Japan were quite happily watching with their feet up at the hotel.
However, the fans were, finally, treated to a goal after 105 minutes, and quite a strike it was. Young Korean substitute Yoon Bitgaram made himself a little space just outside the area and smacked the ball into the far corner. That goal sets up a mouth-watering Japan-South Korea semi-final.
The other clash has less history but is intriguing. Uzbekistan who were looking to reach the semi-finals for the first time after two successive last-eight exits did just that with a 2-1 win over Jordan. The White Wolves feasted just after the restart with two goals in quick succession from Ulugbek Bakayev and won't be too concerned about the relative lack of fluency when compared with earlier wins. After falling at the quarter-final stage at the last two tournaments, Uzbekistan will just be pleased to have gone further in the competition that ever before.
The same can be said of their opposition. Australia won both and home and away during 2010 World Cup qualification and are looking ominous. Harry Kewell scored the only goal of an enthralling game against Iraq with three minutes of extra-time remaining.
Both teams had chances and, just before the oft-crocked ex-Liverpool man finished his fourth straight game in 12 days with a well-taken header, the hero of Iraq's 2007 win - Younis Mahmoud - miscued one of his own with the goal at his mercy. For most of the game, however, the Australian backline held firm with Lucas Neill and Sasa Ognenovski looking like that they had been playing together for years. Iraq can hold their heads high, however, after playing their part in a gripping contest.
But as Iran, Iraq, Jordan and Qatar all crashed out, West Asia, without a World Cup representative in South Africa and without an Asian Champions League win for five years was left to reflect on another disappointing performance against rivals from elsewhere in the AFC. At least fans in the region have some great action taking place on their doorstep.