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JAPAN won their fourth AFC Asian football championship yesterday (29 January) after a tense final against Australia in Qatar’s Khalifa International Stadium in Doha.

The competition began back on 7 January with the hosts Qatar losing 0-2 to Uzbekistan in the opening match of Group A. However Qatar made up for their opening loss by beating China 2-0 and Kuwait 3-0, which assured their passage into the Quarter-Finals as group runners-up. Uzbekistan won the group while China and Kuwait went home.

Japan almost lost their opening match in Group B against Jordan. It took a 92nd minute first ever international goal by centre back Maya Yoshida to earn a 1-1 draw to save their blushes. Japan picked themselves up just like Qatar in their next two games, beating Syria 2-1 with ten men and thrashing the surprisingly hopeless Saudi Arabia 5-0. Saudi Arabia (three times Asian champions) lost all three of their games in Qatar and only scored one goal. They came bottom of Group B with Syria also going out, with Japan winning the group and advancing alongside Jordan.

Group C consisted of two of the favourites to take the title, Australia and South Korea. The other two teams in the group, Bahrain and in particular lowly ranked India never really stood a chance and in the case of the latter, got well and truly hammered. India suffered 0-4, 2-5 and 1-4 defeats to Australia, Bahrain (Ismaeel Abdullatif scoring four goals) and South Korea respectively. Bahrain lost both of their games against the big two in the group, who drew 1-1 when it came to their match against each other. Australia won the group on goal difference from South Korea.

Group D was the ‘Group of Death’ in my eyes as it consisted of: the U.A.E., Iran, North Korea and reigning Asian champions Iraq. Iran won all three of their games (the only side to do this in the group stage) and advanced as group winners along with Iraq. North Korea and U.A.E. finished third and fourth respectively and didn’t score a single goal between them. 😦

The Quarter-Final line up looked like this: Uzbekistan vs. Jordan, Australia vs. Iraq, Japan vs. Qatar and Iran vs. South Korea.

Qatar looked to be heading into the last four when they were 2-1 up and a man up against Japan with just 20 minutes to go. Unfortunately for the host nation Japan levelled the match through Shinji Kagawa, and won it in the 90th minute thanks to Masahiko Inoha scoring his first goal for Japan in just his second match for his country. Uzbekistan knocked-out Jordan by beating them 2-1, and Australia ended Iraq’s quest to defend their title with a 1-0 extra-time victory coming courtesy of a 118th minute goal from former Leeds Utd and Liverpool winger Harry Kewell. South Korea beat Iran in the last Quarter-Final, also 1-0 after extra-time.

Thus the Semi-Final line up was complete with Japan vs. their footballing nemesis South Korea, while surprise package Uzbekistan would take on Australia.

Japan and South Korea were level at 1-1 after 90 minutes and South Korea once again went into extra-time. They fell behind in the 97th minute, but Hwang Jae-Won scored his first goal for South Korea in the very last minute of extra-time to take the match to a penalty shoot-out. Sadly there was to be no fairy tale ending for the Taegeuk Jeonsa (Warriors) as Japan held their nerve to win the shoot-out 3-0. In stark contrast Australia’s match against Uzbekistan was a stroll in the park for the Socceroos who won 6-0! 😮

Uzbekistan’s luck didn’t change in the third place Play-Off match either. South Korea took the bronze medal with a 3-2 win.

And so we came to The Final, Australia vs. Japan. Australia were looking to become the first team ever to win two different continental championships and to become Asian champions at just the second time of asking in the country that was (wrongly) awarded the 2022 World Cup instead of them. Australia is hosting the 2015 Asian Cup as well, so to go into their own tournament as reigning champions would be a huge boost. Japan on the other hand were out to win a record fourth Asian championship. They were currently level on three championships with Saudi Arabia and Iran. Japan also wanted to keep their 100% success rate in Asian Cup finals.

The match itself was a really tense, nail biting affair with chances galore – especially for Australia – but after 90 minutes nobody had broken the deadlock, so to extra-time (again for Japan) we went. Extra-time was just as gripping as the previous 90 minutes, but Japan finally made Australia pay dearly for all their missed chances with just 11 minutes to go. Making just his second senior appearance for Japan, Tadanari Lee found himself unmarked in the middle of the Australian penalty area and hit one of the sweetest and coolest left-footed volleys that I have ever seen. Aussie goalkeeper and now their most capped player, Mark Schwarzer (Fulham’s keeper) could only watch the ball fly into his net. This was Lee’s first goal for Japan and he had only been on the pitch for nine minutes when he scored! It is not every day that a footballers boyhood dream comes true is it?

Super-sub Lee celebrates the most important goal he will probably ever score.

Lee’s goal proved to be the winner meaning that Japan had won the 2011 Asian Cup, their third triumph in the last four tournaments and record fourth in the last six. What makes their achievement even more remarkable is the fact that Japan’s first Asian Cup appearance wasn’t until 1988 when they didn’t even score a goal. But next time around in 1992 they won the title at home and added the 2000 and 2004 titles to the trophy cabinet before their triumph yesterday.

Japan’s Keisuke Honda was awarded ‘Most Valuable Player’, while South Korea won the ‘Fair Play’ award and their midfielder Koo Ja-Cheol top scored after netting five goals in the tournament.

The Blue Samurai (Japan) have well and truly earned their title back and will represent Asian in the 2013 Confederations Cup in Brazil. But before that they have a chance of winning the Copa América (the South American championship) later this year in Argentina. They along with Mexico have been invited to be the 11th and 12th teams in the tournament alongside all of the South American nations. Surly Japan can’t hold both the Asian and South American titles at the same time? Watch this space.

Japan – Worthy champions indeed.

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