DOHA – Substitute Takuma Asano struck twice in the second half as Japan came back from two goals down to beat archrival South Korea 3-2 to win the Asian Under-23 Championship on Saturday.
It looked gloomy for Japan after Kwon Chang-hoon opened the scoring in the 20th minute for South Korea before Jin Seong-uk doubled the lead two minutes into the second half.
But Asano, who took the pitch on the hour for Ryota Oshima, closed the gap in the 67th minute with his first of the evening from a through pass by Shinya Yajima.
A minute later, Yajima restored parity by nodding in a cross from left-back Ryosuke Yamanaka, turning the tide for Makoto Teguramori’s Japan.
With nine minutes to go, Asano put the young Blue Samurai up for good by finishing off a counterattack keyed by Shoya Nakajima, who was named the tournament MVP after his two-goal heroics in Japan’s quarterfinal victory over Iran.
“I hadn’t been able to come up with a goal until now so it feels incredible to have scored when it all mattered and help the team to a win,” said Asano, who was the J. League’s Best Young Player last season for Sanfrecce Hiroshima.
Japan, South Korea and Iraq, which beat tournament host Qatar in the third-place match a day earlier, qualified out of Asia for the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
The 16-team men’s soccer competition starts Aug. 4, ahead of the opening ceremony. Japan hopes to win a medal for the first time since 1968. The Japanese lost to South Korea in the bronze-medal match at the previous Olympics in London.
“It turned out to be a pretty thrilling game,” Teguramori said. “But maybe we were destined to win.
“After South Korea scored twice, that woke us up. My initial plan was for us to win 2-0 so once they went up by two, let’s just say it threw us off a bit.
“This tournament really was about payback for us against some teams. It wore on us that we hadn’t been able to win as much as we wanted to up until now. We knew it wasn’t going to be easy but we found a way.”
Japan was aiming to avenge a quarterfinal defeat to South Korea at the 2014 Asian Games but didn’t have it easy with injured forward Musashi Suzuki out and Takumi Minamino being called back to Austria by his club Red Bull Salzburg.
Falling into a two-goal ditch didn’t help matters, but the introduction of Asano changed the complexion of the game as Teguramori’s men went on to produce three goals in a space of 14 second-half minutes.
On their way to the summit, Japan seemed to have a new hero with each game, a point Nakajima tried to make on behalf of the team, which does not have a standout player head and shoulders above the rest.
“I’m really glad my teammates got the job done,” said FC Tokyo man Nakajima. “It was a tough game until we scored. We were hoping to make the most of Takuma’s pace and we managed to do that in the end.
“The MVP award belongs to everyone, not just me. I want to thank my teammates, the manager and anyone else associated with the team.”