As the 2011 Asian Cup final was contested in Doha, Asia saw two of its best teams battle it out to determine who deserved to be crowned continental champions. And the showpiece certainly lived up to its lofty reputation.
Australia, the new kids on the block, took to the pitch for their first Asian Cup final in what was probably the last chance for the Socceroos’ golden generation to claim silverware. While the likes of Harry Kewell, Lucas Neill and Mark Schwarzer carried the burden of ageing legs, they could also boast experience, desire and the skill required to win a tournament.
Conversely, Japan a well established power in the order of Asian football seemed to be blooding a new generation in the Asian Cup with only Gamba Osaka midfielder Yasuhito Endo in his 30s, while young guns led by Makoto Hasebe and Yuto Nagatomo continued to see their stock sky-rocket.
Much was made of the tactical battles on the pitch with Australia being the more physical and stronger side and Japan possessing the superior technique that had served them so well throughout the tournament.
In the opening exchanges it was clear that the Japanese were not going to be able to play the same free flowing pass and move football that proved so easy on the eye in their battle with South Korea, and the game seemed to quickly devolve into a series of long ball duels. Australia appeared to get the better of the earlier exchanges with Tim Cahill winning almost all of his aerial battles against Maya Yoshida and Yasuyuki Konno. Causing trouble time and time again, the Everton midfielder continued to set up chances for his striking partner Harry Kewell, but few could be classed as clear opportunities. It was also the continuous harrying of Brett Holman that continually provided counter attacking chances that were ultimately spurned. Harry Kewell saw at least two guilt edged chances land at his feet, including a one-on-one with Eiji Kawashima where the goalkeeper wisely left a trailing leg to save the Galatasaray forward’s shot.
That was not to be the end of Kawashima’s heroics though as he continually pulled off save after save from a clutch of Socceroo half attacks, and it seemed that his confidence became infectious as Japan looked more and more dangerous coming forward, suddenly believing that luck was on their side. And the Blue Samurai did create opportunities of their own. It was the determined runs of Yuto Nagatomo that continued to be a well used outlet for the daihyo as the diminutive full-back caused multiple problems for Luke Wilkshire. His efforts were almost rewarded when Stuttgart’s new signing Shinji Okazaki headed narrowly wide after a magnificent run into the box.
It was to be extra time that would ultimately decide the Asian Cup final though and with Nagatomo pushing further forward after Daiki Iwamasa was introduced to combat Tim Cahill’s aerial threat (to great effect), Australia were ultimately found out in a moment of madness as Tadanari Lee was inextricably left unmarked in the box and left with time and space to power a volley into the bottom left hand corner of Mark Schwarzer’s net.
It was strangely this tactical switch by coach Alberto Zaccheroni that tipped the game in Japan’s favour. As Australia’s attacks became more predictable, and were continually rooted out by Iwamasa, Japan continually looked for the opening that would ultimately unlock the Australian defence. However, had it not been for Eiji Kawashima’s shot-stopping brilliance, extra-time probably would not have been needed.
Kawashima had hardly been at his best in the tournament. The keeper saw himself sent off against Syria and let in two goals at his near post to Qatar. Followed by some penalty saving heroics that his predecessor Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi would have been proud of in the semi-final, Kawashima was fired up enough to recall the form that earned him the Japanese number 1 jersey in the first place. On par with Nagatomo for overall performance, the goalkeeper ultimately gave his team the best chance of stealing a winner in extra time.
With a relatively young Japanese side claiming the trophy, and with Alberto Zaccheroni only being in the job for six months before this success, a bright future looks to be on the horizon for a Japanese side growing in stature and confidence. Come the World Cup in Brazil in 2014 and next Asian Cup in Australia in 2015, the daihyo could be well set to enjoy a golden era.
For Australia, the time for rebuilding has come. With many players expected to either retire or only play a minor role in the next World Cup qualifying phase, German boss Holger Osieck now has the unenviable task of replacing a golden generation and trying to keep the Socceroos competitive with a new raft of stars. However, with his insistence in trusting in form over star quality, the transition may well be made less painful by Osieck than some think however.
An Asian Cup final worthy of going down in history, Japan will be delighted that they were able to win their fourth title, and even though Australian fans will be wallowing in self pity for the next few days, they can be proud of their team for their achievement of reaching the final at only their second attempt.