ABU DHABI: Asian football powerhouse Japan will go all out to secure a record fifth Asian Cup title when they take on 2022 World Cup hosts Qatar in final on Friday.
The Blue Samurai may have the Asian Cup pedigree but they are a work in progress and stuttered through their early matches in the United Arab Emirates before exploding into life with a ruthless 3-0 humbling of heavyweights Iran in the semi-finals. Qatar had the easier route through the last four against the hosts but showed huge character in the face of a hostile crowd to run out 4-0 winners and reach a continental title-decider for the first time.
Qatar’s Coach Felix Sanchez whose side has Almoez Ali the leading marksman in the tournament, and who has scored eight goals to match Ali Daei's 1996 record, go into the final having won all the six matches without conceding a single goal. Japan striker Yuya Osako, who scored two goals in an outstanding performance against Iran, will certainly test the Qatar defence at Zayed Sports City but it will be bolstered by the return from suspension of Bassam Al Rawri.
Coach Hajime Moriyasu who took over the Japan squad after last year's run to the last 16 at the World Cup and the control they showed in beating Iran was testimony to his rebuilding work. As much as Osako and fellow forward Takumi Minamino impressed, it was the work in central defence of experienced captain Maya Yoshida and 20-year-old Takehiro Tomiyasu that laid the foundation for the win.
The Qataris, many of whom have been coached by Spaniard Sanchez up through the age groups, have shown a great tactical sense of cohesion and team unity throughout the tournament.
Their fans who have been unable to travel across the Gulf to support the team because of the blockade, and the players appear determined to take a first major international trophy home to them. With few Japanese fans having made the trip and the locals not being too well-disposed towards the Qataris at the moment, there might not be much of a crowd to see them do it if they can prevent Japan from lifting the cup for a fifth time.