Abu Dhabi: The Samurai Blue tried everything but couldn’t slice open Qatar as the latter clinched their maiden AFC Asian Cup with a 3-1 win over their fancied rivals at the Zayed Sports City Stadium on Friday.
Almoez Ali, Abdelaziz Hatim and Akram Hassan Afif scored a goal apiece for the winners while Takumi Minamino grabbed Japan’s sole strike.
When you reach the finals having not conceded a single goal, then you ought to be a hard nut to crack. Japan found that out to their cost early on as Qatar dominated possession and territory.
13Corners for Japan compared to Qatar’s two, but they couldn’t make them count
It didn’t take long for their star striker Ali, the leading scorer of the tournament, to score just 12 minutes into play. He showed tremendous ball control with his left foot to reach for a cross from Akram Hassan Afif before finding the back of the net with an overhead kick. The effort had more of precision than power to leave Japan goalkeeper Shuichi Gonda rooted.
With that goal, Ali also eclipsed former Iranian striker Ali Daei’s record of eight goals in a single tournament set in 1996.
Ali could have widened the gap as he had Japan goalkeeper Gonda at his mercy with a defence-splitting run.
However, his final release was deflected away with a sliding tackle by Japan skipper Maya Yoshida.
The four-time champions Japan were in further trouble with Qatar scoring again in the 27th minute.
Hatim got in on the act with a clinical curling left-footed effort which found the top left corner after being set up by Afif.
Then in the 35th minute, the left post came to Japan’s rescue as a Hasan Al Haydos’ left-footed effort from inside the six-yard box ricocheted off the upright.
Whatever moves Japan could initiate were kept well in check by the resilient Qatar defence, which didn’t allow the opposition strikers even one clear-cut shot at goal.
At half-time, Japanese coach Hajime Moriyasu, who was also chasing a record of winning the Asian Cup as both player and coach, had plenty to ponder on how to get his side back into the game.
After the switch, Japan showed far more purpose and pressed forward but that opened up the danger for conceding further on the counter attacks.
In the 56th minute, Qatar’s Hatim’s left-footed effort from close range following a measured chip from Akram Hassan Afif sailed just over.
The Samurai Blue kept pressing and finally the Qatari defence gave up a goal — for the first time in the tournament — in the 69th minute.
Minamino played a 1-2 with Yuya Osako before chipping the ball over the onrushing Qatar goalkeeper Saad Al Sheeb.
With that goal, the Japanese fans erupted with joy and suddenly one could sense this game was far from over.
There was a flurry of raids and Qatari players were forced back in numbers to defend and there were worried faces on the bench.
However, just when the pressure was mounting, Qatar were given a lifeline after VAR showed Yoshida had handled the ball from a corner in the 82nd minute and Uzbek referee Ravshan Irmatov pointed to the penalty spot.
Afif fired home into the bottom left corner with a right-footed effort and the lead was 3-1and Japan knew their luck was out as they were kept at bay until the end.