Japan win Asian Cup for fourth time

Japan secured a record fourth Asian Cup triumph on Saturday with a 1-0 win over Australia in Qatar.

Level with Iran and Saudi Arabia on three championships heading into the 2011 event, Alberto Zaccheroni’s side had a stunning volley from substitute Tadanari Lee deep into extra time to thank for the win after the game finished 0-0 after 90 minutes.

Australia entered the final with an unchanged line-up from the one that defeated Uzbekistan 6-0 in the semi-final, while Japan replaced injured midfielder Shinji Kagawa with Jungo Fujimoto, and defender Daiki Iwamasa made way for Maya Yoshida, who returned from suspension.

Australia settled first at Doha’s Khalifa Stadium, with a scuffed long-range effort from Harry Kewell forcing a save from Japanese goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima inside the first minute.

A minute later, Matt McKay had a golden chance to give the Socceroos the lead after a nice move but he blazed his shot wide from the edge of the box.

Japan almost took the lead after eight minutes in bizarre circumstances when Australian goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer appeared to injure a knee trying to prevent a corner, although Keisuke Honda’s chip sailed over the unguarded goal in a let-off for the Australians.

Australia produced the best move of the half shortly afterwards, when a back heel by the industrious McKay freed up Brett Holman down the right flank but his dangerous cross eluded both Kewell and Tim Cahill in the middle.

After 18 minutes, Kawashima produced a crucial save to deny the Socceroos when David Carney’s outswinging corner found the head of Cahill and the Japanese ‘keeper made a great stop despite a slight deflection off the head of Kewell.

On 27 minutes, Luke Wilkshire picked out Kewell with a fine cross but the striker’s header was just over the bar.

The Australians went close again on the half-hour mark, when a Lucas Neill cross was nodded into the path of Kewell who could only fire his volley into the side netting.

Japan enjoyed their best attack of the game nine minutes before the break when Honda played a great ball inside the box to Yasuhito Endo, who laid the ball off to Ryoichi Maeda before the striker fired his shot over the bar.

Australia began the second half brightly and Kewell found himself free inside the box immediately after the restart but Japan captain Makoto Hasebe was on hand to block his effort.

Three minutes later Australia thought they had scored when Wilkshere’s floating cross came off the bar, took a deflection off Cahill and appeared to cross the line, although replays showed Maya Yoshida intercepted the ball just in time.

On 65 minutes, a precise cross from Yuto Nagatomo found Okazaki inside the box but the striker’s header was just inches wide of the upright with Schwarzer beaten.

Kawashima made a great save from Kewell moments later with an outstretched right boot, and with five minutes to play the Australian dispossessed Yasuyuki Kono and charged towards goal, but again the keeper averted the danger by charging of his line to perform the block.

With neither side able to break the deadlock, extra time was needed and the first period produced some of the most exciting football of the match.

With five minutes of the first period, Australian substitute Brett Emerton fired wide after a nice move from McKay and Kewell.

Kewell was then replaced by Robbie Kruse and the Melbourne Victory striker could have scored with his first touch when he was picked out by an excellent Emerton cross, but Kawashima pulled off an acrobatic save.

Japan then charged up the field on the counter and Keisuke Honda fired a left-foot shot just wide of Schwarzer’s post.

Japan took the lead four minutes into the second period when Nagamoto used his pace to get down the left flank and fired a pinpoint cross to an unmarked Lee inside the box.

The 25-year-old, in just his second international, lashed a superb first-time volley past Schwarzer, who did not have time to react, to send the Japanese bench into raptures.

Despite piling on the pressure in the final stages, Australia could not find an equaliser and were left to ponder what might have been while Japan can celebrate being crowned Asia’s premier footballing nation for a fourth time.