The Asian Cup final on Friday is a battle between old and new as record champions Japan take on upstart newcomers Qatar in Abu Dhabi’s showpiece Zayed Sports City Stadium.
Japan are searching for a fifth title, having not lost any of their four previous finals, after quick progress since the 2018 World Cup under new coach Hajime Moriyasu.
World Cup 2022 hosts Qatar in contrast had never previously been beyond the last eight of the continental tournament before years of work – and investment – suddenly clicked under the leadership of coach Felix Sanchez.
Statistics suggest the Spaniard’s side are the best in the United Arab Emirates with an incredible 16 goals scored, none conceded and a 100 per cent record which includes wins over previous champions such as Saudi Arabia, Iraq and South Korea.
And those were before they humiliated the hosts 4-0 in the semi-finals in a match tinged with political tension given the ongoing bickering between the countries.
“I think the players showed great commitment because we were in games where we need to be realistic and the opposition, they are trying to attack and have good players and different options and the players were very well organized,” Sanchez said.
“They were very focused on the challenge and the side situations so I think they are working very well as a team and that’s the situation.
“In six games, we didn’t concede a goal. It’s very important and one of the main keys why we are qualified for the final.”
Qatar had viewed the Asian Cup – and the Copa America later this year – as final tune-ups for the home World Cup but the chance to lift a major trophy is a significant achievement in its own right.
One player who will not be going home empty handed regardless of the final outcome is striker Almoez Ali, who tops the scoring chart with a record equalling eight goals.
“We don’t look at the statistics: You could win 1-0 today and lose 3-0 tomorrow,” Ali told the governing body AFC. “Everything we did so far is one thing, but what’s coming up is more important.
“The final needs patience, so if we are patient, play well and forget about everything we did so far, only then will we win the final.”
Qatar will again be without fans on Friday and what neutrals in the stadium are likely to back Japan, who have picked up as the tournament progressed.
A series of – often unimpressive – single-goal victories ended in the semi-final with a 3-0 dismantling of favourites Iran.
“I think we showed a great performance, kept another clean sheet, scored three goals, but one more to go, so we have to show even more desire and passion to be ready for the final,” said captain Maya Yoshida, part of the victorious team in 2011.
Moriyasu noted before the tournament Japan were out to “reclaim” the title they conceded in Australia four years ago.
“That’s what everyone expects from us,” Yoshida said.
“We have to be champions. We have to win every time in Asia.”
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