Japan slayed their South Korean demons and booked their spot in the Final of the 2011 Asian Cup in the early hours of this morning, winning a thrilling match 3-0 on penalties after the teams drew 1-1 after 90 minutes and 2-2 following extra time. Both teams took the lead in the 120 minutes (South Korea in the first half, Japan in the first half of extra time) but were unable to hang on, with the Koreans taking the game to penalties with their equalizer following a frantic scramble in the Japanese penalty area in the last minute of extra time.
Fittingly, a first win over their rivals from across the Japan Sea in almost six years was sealed by FC Tokyo's-own Yasuyuki Konno - on his 28th birthday - who fired home Japan's fourth spot kick to send the Japanese players and supporters into raptures, and the Koreans into floods of tears. The victory set up a showdown with Australia, after the Socceroos battered Uzbekistan 6-0 in the later semi final.
As an Australian, I am now contractually obliged to support my homeland in the Final, but there were plenty of talking points from the Japan game for an FC Tokyo blogger to address, so, while Eiji Kawashima will rightly be the subject of countless column inches for his heroics in the shootout, and Keisuke Honda and Shinji Kagawa are the most high-profile Japanese players of the moment, you can go elsewhere if you want to read about them. Here it's going to be all about Gasmen present and past: Konno and Yuto Nagatomo; and they were involved in most of the big incidents throughout the game (I could talk about Masahiko Inoha too, but I don't like him, so I won't).
Japan settled into the game quickly, and therefore Konno didn't have a lot to do in the early exchanges, but he had to be Johnny-on-the-spot in the 16th minute, when, after Kawashima initially saved a free kick, the ball was headed back in with the keeper nowhere. Standing about three yards out, Konno headed the goal-bound header clear and the danger was gone. The next minute, it was Nagatomo's turn to be heavily involved, this time at the other end of the pitch. Naga was looking to overlap at every opportunity and test the South Korean right back/cult hero Cha Du-Ri, and in the 17th minute he got around the back and whipped in a fantastic cross that Shinji Okazaki headed low and on target, but the Korean keeper Jung Sung-Ryong got enough of his hand on the ball to push it onto the post and keep it out.
Five minutes later, the Saudi Arabian ref did his best to stuff up Konno's birthday, awarding the Koreans a penalty after our man had tried to shepherd a high ball into the box away from the Korean number 7 (whose name I don't want to write because I hate the club he plays for). By the letter of the law, it was possibly the correct decision, but you see incidents like that 10 times a game and nothing is given, so I thought it was harsh. Perhaps the ref realised it too, as he evened things up by giving Japan a dodgy penalty in extra time, but I digress.
After Ki Sung-Yong scored the pen the Japanese were in a familiar position - behind to their fiercest rivals. But these fixtures are always never-a-dull-moment affairs, and Japan continued in the ascendancy, building pressure while spreading the ball to the flanks, and then, in the 36th minute, Naga played a massive role in the equalizer. Again looking to overlap, Naga flew past Cha, taking Honda's excellent through ball in stride and bursting into the box. Bearing down on goal and drawing the keeper, our former No. 5 flicked the ball square to Ryoichi Maeda, who blasted home to cap a fantastic team move.
That goal would prove to be the last of the 90 minutes, and Japan were on the back foot for most of the second half, so Naga's forays forward were somewhat curtailed, but both he and Konno (who distributed well from the back all game) defended stoutly and saw the team through to extra time. Throughout the extra 30 minutes Nagatomo displayed his massive engine, still roaring up the flank right til the end, and after Japan had taken the lead (thanks to that dodgy pen - Hosogai smashed home the rebound after Honda's terrible effort was saved), he had a chance to kill the Koreans off in the 109th minute, but after a swift counter-attack saw him pick up the ball in space down the left, he shot narrowly over after cutting-in and trying to arrow one into the far corner.
In a brilliant game of twists and turns, it was no surprise really when Korea supplied the final twist, sending it to penalties after bending, bending and finally breaking the Japanese rearguard in the the 120th minute. That might've taken the wind out of Japan's sails on another day, but Kawashima saved the first two Korean penalties (after first Honda, then Okazaki scored) to put Japan totally in control. Naga had the chance to crown a superb performance after stepping-up to take the third attempt, but he blazed over after again going for the top corner, to the keeper's right this time.
If Japanese hearts were back in mouths they were soon calmed as the third Korean taker completely bottled it, missing to Kawashima's left, so all that was left was for FC Tokyo's Mr. Reliable, Yasuyuki Konno, to find the net and Japan would be into the final. And just like he did for us on this day....
(go on, you've got a spare eight minutes, watch it again for the 1000th time!) ....Konno did the business under pressure, sending the keeper the wrong way and coolly slotting home the shootout-winning penalty to spark the celebrations.
So it turned out to be a great birthday for our man, and Naga also made us proud with another all-action performance. As I said towards the top, I'll be supporting Australia on Saturday night/Sunday morning, but with those two (and Shuichi Gonda) guaranteed winners medals if Japan win, I can't really lose.