Tuesday, January 25, 2011
Japan finally rewrite history
The history books will say that the 2011 Asian Cup semi-final ended in a 3-0 penalty shootout win for Japan over South Korea after 120 minutes of action ended 2-2. Future students of the game will deserve to know a whole lot more, however. It was an epic evening that had everything - great, controversial and dramatic goals, bad calls, instant redemptions and last-minute action.
History is never far away from this fixture, the fiercest rivalry in Asian football. The Qatari capital of Doha now deserves its own chapter. In the past, mention of that city brought frowns and grimaces to Japanese faces. It was in Doha 1993 during qualification for the World Cup that Iraq scored a last-minute equaliser that cost Japan a first-ever appearance on the global stage. You can guess which team went to the United States instead and you can guess which fans talk of the 'Miracle of Doha' and which lament 'The Agony of Doha' .
It won't be so easy to know which fans are which if they start talking about Doha-inspired pain or delight from now. Eighteen years on, Korean tears were falling on the Middle Eastern turf after a penalty shootout that wasn't as dramatic as the events immediately before. No Taeguk Warrior scored, while Keisuke Honda - who gave his best performance of the tournament - Shinjo Okazaki and Yasuyuki Konno all found the back of the net for Japan.
It may not be any consolation to Cho Kwang-Rae's men that Asian football was the winner on Tuesday evening. The best two teams of the tournament so far put on a show that may not have boasted constant quality but gripped audiences worldwide all the same. If the 2010 World Cup was without an epic game, the same can't be said of the 2011 Asian Cup.
You had the energy, the speed, the stamina and the never-say-die attitude of the Taeguk Warriors and the movement, the passing and the coolness in possession of the Samurai Blue. The latter was shown in Japan's first goal, the 36th-minute equaliser. Yuto Nagatomo was released smartly down the left by Honda to cross for Ryoichi Maeda to score. It was as slick a move as you will see all tournament. Prior to that strike, the three goals conceded by the Taeguk Warriors at the Asian Cup had been the result of penalties given away on two occasions and a goalkeeping error in the other. This was different.
That cancelled out Korea's opener. Konno may have fired home the winning penalty but he was less happy after giving away one of his own midway through the first half with a hefty shove on Park Ji-Sung, making his 100th appearance for his country. Ki Sung-Yong fired home the perfect penalty - how coach Cho Kwang-Rae must now wish that the Celtic midfielder had taken an early spot kick in the shootout - to give the 2002 semi-finalists a great start.
But Konno wasn't the only person to ride the roller-coaster higher and lower than his team-mates. His Korean central defensive counterpart Hwang Jae-Won did so too. The Suwon Bluewings man gave away a penalty seven minutes into extra time for a similar foul to Yonno's. The difference was that Hwang was outside the area when he was adjudged to have fouled Okazaki.
Perhaps Honda felt the same. His tame shot was saved by Jung Sung-Ryeong only for Hajime Hosogai to smash home the rebound. Hwang did something similar in the last minute of extra time to take the game into a shootout. The game and Korea deserved that goal. It didn't deserve to be settled on a dodgy decision, though it isn't the first in a tournament that has suffered from some below-par officiating. At least the shootout defeat, bitter though it was, was easier to take for a Korean team that recovered well after Japan had threatened to run away with the match either side of half-time,
Full-backs Cha Du-Ri and Lee Young-Pyo were starting to get forward on a more regular basis after spending the first half pinned back by the marauding Atsuto Uchida and Nagatomo on the Japanese flanks.
As full-time approached, both teams started to tire. The penalty decision gave Japan the lead they wanted and, from that point on, Alberto Zaccheroni's men defended it. Korean crosses kept coming in and Japanese heads and boots kept clearing. Then, with just seconds remaining, Hwang equalised after another penalty-area scramble.
Japan looked devastated while the Koreans celebrated as if they had won but the whistle that followed signalled the start of penalties and not the end of the match. Football psychology would suggest that the team that had just equalised would have the upper hand in the subsequent shootout. Korea did their best to disprove that theory and became only the second team in Asian Cup history to miss all their penalties, following in the footsteps of China in 1988.
Korea's 51 years of hurt at the Asian Cup will not end anytime soon while Japan have gone a good deal of the way towards wiping away 18 years of painful history. From now, though, they will be focused on the near future and a possible fourth title.