Qatar claimed a first-ever Asian Cup thanks to a 3-1 victory against record four-time champions Japan in Friday’s final.
The Maroons, who made their debut in the tournament’s showpiece, soaked up early pressure and pounced through striker Almoez Ali’s 12th-minute overhead kick. His ninth strike in the UAE saw him move ahead of Iran icon Ali Daei as the competition’s highest scorer at a single running.
Another fine goal followed on 27 minutes at a near-full Zayed Sports City when midfielder Abdulaziz Hatem curled in from 25 yards. This represented a second assist of the night for forward Akram Afif and a, remarkable, 10th of the 2019 edition.
The World Cup regulars of Japan, belatedly, stirred into life after the interval and earned a lifeline through attacker Takumi Minamino’s well-worked chipped finish that ended Qatar’s run of clean sheets in the competition. But the half’s other goal would come for the Maroons, the outstanding Afif calmly converting an 83rd-minute penalty-kick once Yoshida’s handball from 2018 AFC Player of the Year Abdelkarim Hassan’s header was retrospectively punished by the video-assistant referee.
Unsurprisingly, changes were at a premium in the capital. Al Ain’s Tsukasa Shiotani came in for Sint-Truiden’s Wataru Endo in defensive midfield for Samurai Blue, while Al Duhail centre-back Bassam Al Rawi was back from suspension for Qatar and Al Gharafa’s Hatem was productively recalled.
A cagey contest had been expected between the combatants in front of more than 36,000 spectators, with Japan cast as slight favourites.
But watched on by dignitaries that included FIFA president Gianni Infantino, AFC president Salman bin Ibrahim Al Khalifa, Real Madrid legend Luis Figo plus Manchester United and South Korea hero Park Ji-sung, Qatar would race into a 2-0 lead before the half-hour mark.
Villarreall-owned Afif punted a ball into the centre. Al Duhail’s Ali, under pressure from Southampton defender Maya Yoshida, took two deft touches and then athletically produced an overhead kick without the ball hitting the ground.
Yoshida would block a dangerous Ali shot almost from the restart. But Qatar would go further ahead soon after.
Hatem received possession under no pressure, looked up and stroked the ball home with his left foot. The post soon came between sliding skipper Hassan Al Haydos and a 3-0 advantage.
Samurai Blue boss Hajime Moriyasu, renowned for his conservative outlook, needed to inspire a remarkable turnaround in his nation’s fifth showpiece appearance in the last nine runnings.
Hatem, however, would volley the second half’s first chance wildly over in the 56th minute.
At the other end, substitute Yoshinori Muto would head off target within a minute of coming on just after the hour mark.
A way back into the contest would come in the 69th minute. Shiotani fed the ball into Werder Bremen forward Yuya Osaka, whose lay off played Red Bull Salzburg’s Minamino into a one-on-one he cutely dispatched with a dink over Al Sadd goalkeeper Saad Al Sheeb.
The expected cavalry charge from Samurai Blue, however, did not take place. Qatar, like they’d done all tournament, were happy to sit deep and strike on the break.
A foray up the pitch won a corner in the 80th minute. Hassan’s header struck Yoshida’s outstretched arm, with Afif doing the honours from 12 yards after VAR’s intervention.
They say patience is a virtue, but Shuichi Gonda must have the patience of a saint to wait as long as he has for a chance to shine.
The goalkeeper’s wait has been nearly a decade, but he has finally ascended to the Japan number one jersey, and now he’ll play a pivotal role as Hajime Moriyasu’s side go in search of a record-extending fifth Asian Cup title against Qatar in the final on Friday.
The Sagan Tosu stopper made his international debut as long ago as 2010 but has had to bide his time to fully establish himself, which he has done at this tournament and under Moriyasu, who has ushered in a new era of youth for the Samurai Blue.
Gonda gained only his 10th cap in the 3-0 semi-final triumph over Iran – aged 29. After his maiden cap against Yemen nine years ago, his second came three years later, with his third only in 2015, as he had to play understudy to the likes of national team icons Seigo Narazaki, Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi and Eiji Kawashima.
But now Gonda is the main man, and it is an opportunity he has taken with both hands. He had just five caps to his name coming into the tournament, where he has doubled his tally, recording four successive clean sheets in the process.
“When it comes to protecting the goal, that’s my job,” the shotstopper told the-AFC.com ahead of the final in Abu Dhabi.
“I feel a sense of responsibility to do that and think I am doing okay in that regard. The most important thing is that everybody is putting their bodies on the line.”
He was part of the Asian Cup-winning squad of 2011, and earned a call up to the World Cup squad in Brazil three years later, but didn’t appear in either tournament as Kawashima kept guard.
Almost eight years to the day that he watched on from the bench as Tadanari Lee scored in extra time to give Japan their fourth continental title with a 1-0 win over Australia, Gonda is now in a position to help guide them to their fifth.
But for a crucial save from Iran’s lethal striker Sardar Azmoun when Monday’s semi-final was poised at 0-0, it might have been a different story.
Juggernauts Japan may have history on their side, but Gonda is taking nothing for granted.
“All we have done is progressed to the final,” he added.
“We won’t know anything until we take on our opponent. Football starts at 0-0 so we just have to make sure we prepare ourselves properly.”
Asian Cup glory will be on the line this Friday when record four-time champions Japan meet first-time finalists Qatar at Zayed Sports City.
After 50 matches contested by a record 24-nation field in the UAE, both teams have emerged to contest the showpiece. Samurai Blue’s new breed have gradually gained momentum throughout the event and come in as favourites, though an opponent spearheaded by history chasing, eight-goal striker Almoez Ali could cause difficulties.
Here are the talking points ahead of the anticipated clash:
ATTACK V DEFENCE
Football is a team game, but individual battles always matter.
Japan centre-back Takehiro Tomiyasu and Qatar striker Ali are both barely out of their teens. Their influences, however, vastly outweigh their relative lack of international experience.
Tomiyasu was picked in defensive midfield for the shaky opening 3-2 win against Turkmenistan. This experiment was swiftly abandoned, with Tomiyasu returning to his usual position of centre-back.
In the four starts that followed for the effortlessly composed 20-year-old, no further goals were conceded by Samurai Blue.
Most impressively, the Sint-Truiden defender’s seventh senior cap saw him mix it with physical Iran striker Sardar Azmoun and come out as the clear winner during the 3-0 victory.
A different proposition awaits him against 22-year-old Ali.
The Al Duhail forward’s searing pace and ruthless finishing has been on full show in the Emirates. A ‘super hat-trick’ against North Korea and brace versus Saudi Arabia stands as highlights from an eight-goal haul that puts him level with Iran icon Ali Daei as the record scorer from an individual Asian Cup.
His placed shot that cannoned in off the post in his side’s semi-final win was his first since the group stage. Force home another on Friday and Qatar’s name could be on the Cup.
Japan and Qatar might have won their last-four ties by a combined score of 7-0, but goals should be at a premium in the capital.
The Samurai Blue made history at this running by winning five-successive matches by a one-goal margin. Their low-octane approach under Hajime Moriyasu reached its zenith in the round of 16 against Saudi Arabia when a 1-0 victory was earned with just 23-per-cent possession.
Qatar are also a measured outfit, who are ruthless on the counter-attack.
At the other end, goalkeeper Saad Al Sheeb has faced just 10 shots on target on his way to a remarkable six clean sheets from six matches.
Extra time and penalties cannot be ruled out.
A rivalry could be emerging that defines Asian football for years to come.
Japan’s standing as a breeding ground for outstanding talent has grown, exponentially, since 1992’s first continental victory.
From the breakthrough witnessed by Kazuyoshi Miura’s compatriots, then debut World Cup qualifications experienced with Hidetoshi Nakata and consolidation under Makoto Hasebe and Co.
A clean sweep followed World Cup 2018’s run to the round of 16, with Shinji Kagawa and Keisuke Honda among those to drop away. Supremacy in the UAE by Ritsu Doan, Tomiyasu and their cohorts will solidify the latest batch’s ascension.
Only South Korea have been able to match their consistent ability to produce premium players in Asia. That is, until now.
Doha’s Aspire Academy appears to have, finally, borne fruit.
Under long-term mentor Felix Sanchez, Qatar are yet to concede in the Emirates and are top scorers with 16 goals.
2018 AFC Player of the Year Abdelkarim Hassan and Villarreal-owned forward Akram Afif – he has a leading nine assists in the UAE – are among those to provide able support to Ali.
Triumph on Friday and a formative test will have been passed on the way to hosting World Cup 2022.