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HANOI — Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi saved two penalties as defending champion Japan beat Australia in a dramatic shootout to advance to the Asian Cup semifinals on Saturday evening, after the game had finished 1-1 after extra time.

News photoJapan midfielder Kengo Nakamura looks for a chance to shoot as Australia goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer gets
in position to defend during the second half of the Asian Cup quarterfinal game in Hanoi on Saturday.
KYODO PHOTO

Central defender Yuji Nakazawa scored the decisive penalty after Jubilo Iwata ‘keeper Kawaguchi saved from Harry Kewell and Lucas Neill to spark wild celebrations among the Japan players and spectators.

“I was relaxed when kicked the goal because Kawaguchi already saved twice,” Nakazawa said after Japan had a 4-3 edge on PKs.

In normal time, Naohiro Takahara had equalized following John Aloisi’s second-half opener.

The Japanese, looking for a third straight Asian title, were utterly dominant for most of the proceedings at Hanoi’s furnace-like My Dinh Stadium, with only flashes of inspiration from the Aussies. Substitute Kewell was the provider for the most lethal of those on 69 minutes when the Liverpool midfielder’s corner evaded everyone and Aloisi stole in at the far post ahead of Seiichiro Maki to score in off the bar.

The response was almost immediate. Shunsuke Nakamura found himself in acres of space on the left and scooped in a deep cross to Maki, who climbed well to head back across goal. The ball should have been dealt with by ‘keeper Mark Schwarzer or Mark Milligan, but the defender mis-hit the clearance to Takahara, who brilliantly turned the defender and placed the ball in off the left post on 72 minutes.

Ivica Osim belied his years and was off the bench like lightning, first in celebration and then to cajole his charges as Japan wrestled back control. The game completely turned on its head moments later when Vincenzo Grella was sent off for a dangerous challenge on Takahara, the Italy-based midfielder’s flailing arm catching the Germany-based forward in the face.

The game had always been there for the taking — but now even more so.

But, for all their possession the goal wouldn’t come. In the second period of extra time — the Aussies dead on their feet — Yasuhito Endo went close with an audacious lob, substitute Hisato Sato ballooned over, before Schwarzer astonishingly saved Shunsuke Nakamura’s whites-of-the-eyes range shot right at the death.

Penalties it was.

“I make it the rule that I don’t watch the PK on the field,” Osim said. “I have a reputation as bad luck for my team’s PK. PK relies on the luck.”

The coach added: “Japan controlled the match well. Australia showed some good plays but overall Japan maintained the initiative of the match.” After the match, Takahara detailed his equalizer this way: “We had some success on cheating Australian players on kick feints in the match. I tried one and it went well.”

And now Takahara and Japan will play Saudi Arabia or Uzbekistan in the Hanoi semifinal set for Wednesday. The Saudi-Uzbek quarterfinal is Sunday at Jakarta’s Gelora Bung Karno Stadium — also the scene of the July 29 final.

With the temperature tipping the scales at a broiling 33 degrees, it was of no surprise the first half was conducted at something approaching training-ground pace, the Aussies happy to allow Japan to languidly pass the ball around for much of it.

Apart from an early shot from Mark Viduka — looking dangerous but well shackled by the imperious Yuki Abe — the early chances belonged to Japan, not that it had a lot more to show for its possession. Maki went close with a near-post header and Yasuhito Endo hit a weak volley. Shunsuke Nakamura created both, the Celtic playmaker effortlessly and elegantly conducting proceedings.

He had able assistance as Japan controlled the midfield. Kengo Nakamura was spraying passes around with the seemingly blithe insouciance of his namesake, while Keita Suzuki took care of the dirty work as he snapped at Aussie heels all around. Only Endo looked a little out of sorts.

Kengo Nakamura definitely had a swagger about him. A minute into the second half, he very nearly put Japan ahead as he turned on the edge of the area to get away a shot that Schwarzer did well to get down to and tip away.

Tiredness was now creeping in to the players’ legs and the game ebbed and flowed for a while as a result.

Mistakes, too, began to appear.

Schwarzer spilled a Takahara shot that should have been punished.

Man-mountain Viduka was the first to be sacrificed on the hour mark, the Newcastle United striker hounded to the point of substitution by Abe. Fellow Premier League star Kewell came on as replacement to the delight of parts of a sizeable crowd — his club Liverpool is popular in these parts — and almost immediately got booked for diving. But he was the catalyst for the heart-stopping action that was to follow.

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