Australia will be a formidable opponent in Saturday’s Asian Cup final, but fatigue could be just as big an obstacle to Japan’s chances of winning the trophy for a record fourth time.
Japan faces the Socceroos in Doha’s Khalifa Stadium four days after a draining semifinal win over South Korea, where extra time and penalties added further weight to legs that looked weary during a difficult second half.
The Koreans raised the tempo after an opening 45 minutes in which Japan had the upper hand, and Alberto Zaccheroni’s side found itself struggling to keep up for periods until Hajime Hosogai made it 2-1 early in extra time.
Goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima’s shootout heroics saved the day after Hwang Jae Won equalized in injury time, but by then Japan had played 120 minutes of such fierce competition that a physical toll is now unavoidable.
The same cannot be said of Australia, which trounced Uzbekistan 6-0 later in the day and had the game pretty much wrapped up inside an hour. The Australians were forced into extra time before they overcame holder Iraq in the quarterfinals, but otherwise their path to the final has been relatively smooth and the Socceroos should be the fresher team going into the title match.
Japan must also cope without attacking midfielder Shinji Kagawa, who has been ruled out after breaking a bone in his foot. Kagawa’s tournament had been a quiet one until he woke up in spectacular fashion in the quarterfinal against Qatar, and much will rest on the shoulders of Keisuke Honda in the Borussia Dortmund man’s absence.
Honda had his best game of the competition so far in Tuesday’s semifinal, and he will again need to lead by example if Japan is to get the better of Australia. The way the 24-year-old slipped the ball through to Yuto Nagatomo to set up Ryoichi Maeda’s goal was a reminder of how decisive he can be despite recent subdued form, and his physical strength against center-backs Lucas Neill and Sasa Ognenovski could also be invaluable.
Ultimately, however, Japan’s progress to the final has been about the team, not individuals. Fringe squad members have played more than just a peripheral role, and the numerous injuries and suspensions Zaccheroni has had to deal with have been overcome with minimal fuss.
Regardless of Saturday’s result, such spirit in the face of adversity is likely to be the real legacy of this campaign.
Zaccheroni insisted that winning the trophy would come second to giving experience to a group of young players, and there have certainly been enough incidents over the past three weeks to forge a team with character and resolve that will serve well for the future.
But nothing builds a positive mentality quite like winning. Japan has been improving with every game, and each victory has brought confirmation that here is a team not only with potential, but the courage and conviction to deliver.
There will never be a better time than Saturday’s final to prove it.