Pragmatic head coach Hajime Moriyasu has declared defeat in Friday’s Asian Cup 2019 showpiece has provided a “base for Japan to grow” in the years ahead.
The Samurai Blue selected a youthful squad in the UAE, with the likes of Shinji Kagawa and Keisuke Honda leading the celebrated absentees from the group that made World Cup 2018’s round of 16. This new generation was denied a record-extending fifth continental triumph because of final-debutants Qatar’s 3-1 victory at Zayed Sports City.
Moriyasu, however, was convinced valuable lessons had been learned by the likes of highly rated Groningen winger Ritsu Doan and Sint-Truiden centre-back Takehiro Tomiyasu on the way to the 2019 Copa America, Tokyo 2020 Olympics and World Cup 2022.
“The goal was to be champions,” said the 50-year-old former Japan midfielder, who assisted Akira Nishino in Russia. “This meant a lot for the team.
“We wanted a mixture of young and experienced players. By playing seven matches, we could improve ourselves in different types of matches.
“I want to thank the experienced players for their approach and for young players expressing themselves on the field. I want young players to keep staying hungry after this result.
“This tournament will be the base for Japan to grow a team from now on. My role is to watch the process of how things are going.
“I want my staff and players to be proud of what they have done in this tournament.”
Qatar went ahead in the 12th minute when striker Almoez Ali produced an elegant overhead kick and became the highest scorer in a single Asian Cup with nine goals. Midfielder Abdulaziz Hatem doubled the lead on 27 minutes with a refined curled shot from 25 yards.
Takumi Minamino’s intricately-worked dinked effort on 69 minutes caused the Qatar defence to be breached for the first time in the competition. All hope, however, of a comeback was snubbed out when skipper Maya Yoshida handled 2018 AFC Player of the Year Abdelkarim Hassan’s header and the video-assistant referee awarded a penalty that was confidently converted by forward Akram Afif.
Moriyasu said: “We lost the first goal when there was a mismatch in the systems. We made our preparations against Qatar knowing they’d play three defenders, but it’s my responsibility that the players couldn’t express their strengths on the pitch.
“Losing the first two goals made it difficult. We had chances to tie it, but it was very difficult.
“Qatar really had a tight defence.”
Japan are next scheduled to play friendlies against Colombia and Bolivia in March.
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.”