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Japan failed to win the E-1 Football Championship after collapsing 4-1 against South Korea on Saturday on the final day of the tournament.

Japan headed into the game at Ajinomoto Stadium needing only a draw to lift the trophy for the second time, and the omens looked good when Yu Kobayashi staked the home side to a third-minute lead from the penalty spot.

But South Korea, which like Japan was without its European-based players for the four-team tournament also featuring North Korea and China, equalized through Kim Shin-wook in the 13th minute before a free kick from Jung Woo-young and another strike from Kim Shin-wook gave the Koreans a two-goal halftime lead.

Substitute Yeom Ki-hun then added a fourth goal midway through the second half to put the game beyond Japan’s reach, securing a fourth East Asian title for South Korea and consigning Japan to second place.

“We knew before the game that they were a better team than us,” said Japan manager Vahid Halilhodzic. “There was a gap in quality and South Korea deserved to win.

“We wanted to get the result today but after we scored, we stopped playing. I don’t know why that was the case. South Korea exploited that well and scored twice, and we lost our balance. South Korea was the better team tonight.”

Japan began the tournament with wins over both North Korea and China, but South Korea provided a far stiffer test and ended up inflicting the heaviest defeat on Halilhodzic’s side since he took over in March 2015.

“We scored at a good time and we made a lively start, but from then on we played with fear,” said Japan captain Gen Shoji. “If you play like that, it shouldn’t be a surprise if you concede goals. We allowed our opponents to play to their strengths. This game has left us with a lot to think about.”

The game was only a minute old when South Korean captain Jang Hyun-soo dragged down Junya Ito as the Kashiwa Reysol winger charged into the box, and Australian referee Christopher Beath had no hesitation in pointing to the spot. Goalkeeper Jo Hyeon-woo went the right way, but Kobayashi sent his penalty past his reach and into the bottom corner.

South Korea reacted to the early setback by pinning Japan back in its own half, and after going close twice in the space of two minutes, the visitors scored the equalizer. Kim Jin-su swung in a cross from the left, and Kim Shin-wook outjumped Shoji to head past goalkeeper Kosuke Nakamura.

Ten minutes later, South Korea had the lead. A reckless tackle by Shintaro Kurumaya earned the Kawasaki Frontale defender a booking and the South Koreans a free kick in dangerous territory, and Jung stepped up to fire it past Nakamura from 25 meters out.

And the South Koreans made it three in the 35th minute when Lee Jae-sung ran past Kurumaya before shipping the ball out to the left for Kim Shin-wook to dispatch crisply past Nakamura.

“They switched between attack and defense much quicker than we did,” said Shoji. “We weren’t able to find spaces in their defense.”

Japan was unable to gain a foothold as the second half got under way, and the night got worse for the home side when Yeom fired in the Koreans’ fourth in the 69th minute with a free kick that deflected off Kobayashi.

Substitute Kengo Kawamata almost pulled a goal back with a header in the 84th minute, but Jo got down quickly to block it on the line as the Koreans saw out the victory with the minimum of fuss.

“This was significant for both teams before the World Cup, and the fact that we won is very good for us,” said South Korea manager Shin Tae-yong, whose team has been drawn with Germany, Mexico and Sweden at next summer’s World Cup in Russia.

“But there is still room for improvement. We had to win tonight so there was pressure on us, and we conceded a goal from a penalty straight away. But the players picked themselves up after that and went on to win so I’m very proud of them.”

In the day’s earlier game, China and North Korea drew 1-1 to hand China third place and leave North Korea last.

China took the lead through Wei Shihao in the 28th minute, only for Jong Il Gwan to claim a share of the points for North Korea with an expertly taken free kick in the 81st minute.

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