Asian Cup glory will be on the line this Friday when record four-time champions Japan meet first-time finalists Qatar at Zayed Sports City.
After 50 matches contested by a record 24-nation field in the UAE, both teams have emerged to contest the showpiece. Samurai Blue’s new breed have gradually gained momentum throughout the event and come in as favourites, though an opponent spearheaded by history chasing, eight-goal striker Almoez Ali could cause difficulties.
Here are the talking points ahead of the anticipated clash:
ATTACK V DEFENCE
Football is a team game, but individual battles always matter.
Japan centre-back Takehiro Tomiyasu and Qatar striker Ali are both barely out of their teens. Their influences, however, vastly outweigh their relative lack of international experience.
Tomiyasu was picked in defensive midfield for the shaky opening 3-2 win against Turkmenistan. This experiment was swiftly abandoned, with Tomiyasu returning to his usual position of centre-back.
In the four starts that followed for the effortlessly composed 20-year-old, no further goals were conceded by Samurai Blue.
Most impressively, the Sint-Truiden defender’s seventh senior cap saw him mix it with physical Iran striker Sardar Azmoun and come out as the clear winner during the 3-0 victory.
A different proposition awaits him against 22-year-old Ali.
The Al Duhail forward’s searing pace and ruthless finishing has been on full show in the Emirates. A ‘super hat-trick’ against North Korea and brace versus Saudi Arabia stands as highlights from an eight-goal haul that puts him level with Iran icon Ali Daei as the record scorer from an individual Asian Cup.
His placed shot that cannoned in off the post in his side’s semi-final win was his first since the group stage. Force home another on Friday and Qatar’s name could be on the Cup.
Japan and Qatar might have won their last-four ties by a combined score of 7-0, but goals should be at a premium in the capital.
The Samurai Blue made history at this running by winning five-successive matches by a one-goal margin. Their low-octane approach under Hajime Moriyasu reached its zenith in the round of 16 against Saudi Arabia when a 1-0 victory was earned with just 23-per-cent possession.
Qatar are also a measured outfit, who are ruthless on the counter-attack.
At the other end, goalkeeper Saad Al Sheeb has faced just 10 shots on target on his way to a remarkable six clean sheets from six matches.
Extra time and penalties cannot be ruled out.
A rivalry could be emerging that defines Asian football for years to come.
Japan’s standing as a breeding ground for outstanding talent has grown, exponentially, since 1992’s first continental victory.
From the breakthrough witnessed by Kazuyoshi Miura’s compatriots, then debut World Cup qualifications experienced with Hidetoshi Nakata and consolidation under Makoto Hasebe and Co.
A clean sweep followed World Cup 2018’s run to the round of 16, with Shinji Kagawa and Keisuke Honda among those to drop away. Supremacy in the UAE by Ritsu Doan, Tomiyasu and their cohorts will solidify the latest batch’s ascension.
Only South Korea have been able to match their consistent ability to produce premium players in Asia. That is, until now.
Doha’s Aspire Academy appears to have, finally, borne fruit.
Under long-term mentor Felix Sanchez, Qatar are yet to concede in the Emirates and are top scorers with 16 goals.
2018 AFC Player of the Year Abdelkarim Hassan and Villarreal-owned forward Akram Afif – he has a leading nine assists in the UAE – are among those to provide able support to Ali.
Triumph on Friday and a formative test will have been passed on the way to hosting World Cup 2022.
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