Japan's Ritsu Doan and team mates celebrate at the end of the match. Image Credit: REUTERS

Dubai: The Video Assistant Referee (VAR) took centre stage on Thursday with Japan banking on a Doan Ritsu penalty conversion to ensure a sixth semi-final appearance with an uncharacteristic 1-0 win over lowly Vietnam in the 2019 AFC Asian Cup at Al Nasr’s Al Maktoum Stadium.

Quarter-finalists when they hosted the tournament in 2007, and with a Fifa ranking of 100, Vietnam showed no signs of nerves as they battled against opponents with a much better footballing pedigree, a Fifa ranking of No. 50, and semi-finalists on five earlier occasions — 1992, 2000, 2004, 2007 and 2011.

Going into the quarter-finals, Vietnam — who were the 16th and last team to qualify to the round of 16 stage — were never supposed to threaten the four-time champions. But surprisingly, the Golden Dragons kept their cool as their early pressure yielded them a couple of corners in the opening five minutes.

Not shy to keep possession, Vietnam relied on Nguyen Cong Phuong as their attack probe. The quick-fire striker, who plays in the Vietnam League for Hoang Anh Gia Lai, did not disappoint as his quick movements breaking open the Japan defensive line. One of his solo runs in the 14th minute looked threatening, but was cut off in the last moment by the Japanese skipper Maya Yoshida.

Despite enjoying possession, the Samurai Blue looked far from convincing in their build-up towards the Vietnam area. But, they did find the back of the net in the 24th minute when Yoshida headed in a corner, but after a VAR review, the goal was disallowed as the ball hit his hand before going into the goal.

At the other end, Phuong continued to be a thorn for the Japanese defence with his quick movement and runs. He should have got a goal in the 27th minute, but his curling placement went just wide. Ten minutes later, Nguyen was at it again when his onward supply caught Phan Van Duc in the clear, only for Japanese goalkeeper Shuichi Gonda to bring off a save. Japan nearly went into the break a goal to the good with Doan Ritsu and Minamino Takumi advancing on the right, but an alert Dang Van Lam pulled off a fine one-handed save.

The second half was all about further domination from Japan with Vietnam relying on the quick counters. Their persistence finally yielded a goal, although in a most bizarre manner. Ritsu Doan went in for a through ball from Genki Haraguchi, and the midfielder, who plays for Groningen in the Dutch League, was brought down by Vietnam’s Bui Tien Dung.

UAE referee Mohammad Abdullah Hassan signalled play on, and then after a good two minutes asked for a consultation with VAR. It took another minute before the official from the host country decided it was a penalty. Given this golden opportunity, Doan stepped up and sent the ball to the left of Lam in what proved to be the only goal of the match.

The game opened up after the goal, and Vietnam were unlucky in the 73rd minute when a long-range effort from substitute Nguyen Phong Hong Duy missed the target narrowly, and then four minutes later, Nguyen Van Toan forced Gonda, the otherwise idle Japanese goalkeeper, to save. Vietnam had one final look at the Japan goal on 90 minutes, but Nguyen Huy Hung hastily ballooned over with just Gonda at his mercy.

Ultimately, the four minutes of extra time did nothing to alter the result and while Japan scraped into the semi-finals, Vietnam walked away as the real heroes for their display.