DOHA – Japan qualified for its sixth successive Olympics in men’s soccer in dramatic fashion as Riki Harakawa struck a stoppage-time winner for a 2-1 victory over Iraq in an Asian Under-23 Championship semifinal on Tuesday.
Yuya Kubo opened the scoring midway through the first half before Saad Natiq equalized shortly before the break. Japan was forced to ride out waves of pressure from Iraq and the game appeared bound for extra time, but Makoto Teguramori’s men had the last laugh as Harakawa pounced on a half-clearance in the 93rd minute for the win.
The two finalists and the third-place team qualify for this summer’s Rio de Janeiro Olympics out of Asia. Japan will play archrival South Korea in Saturday’s final.
“(To qualify) was our goal all long so it’s a huge relief,” Kawasaki Frontale midfielder Harakawa said. “We had it tough for large parts of the game, but I’m glad we won in the end.
“I just happened to be in the right place at the right time (for the goal).”
At the 2012 Summer Games in London, Japan barely missed out on what would have been its first medal since 1968, losing to South Korea in the bronze-medal game.
Teguramori said he hopes his side can continue to disprove the critics in Rio, just as it has done at this competition where some questioned the current generation of players to keep the Olympic streak going for Japan.
“We knew it was going to be a tough game all long, but we wanted to get the job done in 90 minutes,” the former Vegalta Sendai boss said. “I was thrilled; you couldn’t write a script like this.
“These boys can be on the quiet side but I knew they were determined. This is a gift from the gods. We’ll only get stronger from here on.”
Teguramori made four changes to the first team that defeated Iran 3-0 in extra time in Friday’s quarterfinal, paving the way for the return of Musashi Suzuki, who missed the Iran game because of a groin injury.
It was Suzuki who set up Kubo for the opener in the 26th minute, when the Albirex Niigata striker led a counterattack with acres of space down the left wing.
Cutting into the box, Suzuki picked out Kubo racing in front of goal and the Young Boys forward did well to hit the back of the net on his first touch.
Suzuki had an excellent opportunity to get on the scoresheet himself on the half-hour, but failed to convert his chance from the edge of the area, firing wide of the post.
Japan, though, went quiet for the remainder of the half as Iraq turned up the intensity in search of the equalizer, which it would find two minutes to the intermission.
Iraq leveled from the right corner through Natiq, who beat goalkeeper Masatoshi Kushibiki with a soft header, after the Japanese custodian swatted away a near own goal by Suzuki and another header by Natiq.
The game continued to be a challenge for Japan in the second half as Amjad Attwan Kadhim called Kushibiki into action in the 50th minute with a stinging effort from 20 meters out.
Extra time loomed on the horizon as neither team budged but in the third and last minute of injury time, Harakawa beat Fahad Talib from outside the box, blasting past the Iraqi goalkeeper who had fisted away a cross by Takumi Minamino.
“I want to thank everyone on this team,” Kubo said. “We only need to win one more and go home as champions.”
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