The growing football rivalry between Australia and Japan will reach new heights in the Asian CupAsian Cup final after both won their semifinals in contrasting fashion on Tuesday. Japan beat its fierce rival South Korea in a penalty shootout while Australia routed ten-man Uzbekistan 6-0.
In a back-and-forth encounter, Japan came from a goal down to take the lead before South Korea equalized in the final seconds of extra time. With the score locked at 2-2, Japan won 3-0 on penalties.
Australia forward Harry Kewell scored inside five minutes, helping his team to a 3-0 lead by the time Uzbekistan went down to 10 men in the 65th minute. Australia scored three more in the most lopsided semifinal in the tournament's history, earning its first place in the final of Asia's premiere competition and silencing critics who felt this team coming in was too old and too slow. "We had brilliant game today. The players put on great show, a great performance," Australia coach Holger Osieck said. "What they did today is fantastic. ... It is the right present for the Australian public."
Australia's switch from the Oceania to the Asian confederation had quickly ignited a rivalry with Japan. Australia beat the Blue Samurai in the group stage of the 2006 World Cup before Japan exacted revenge by knocking the Socceroos out of the previous Asian Cup.
Saturday's final will be an enticing clash between two teams which entered the tournament considered to be the best teams in Asia and which both had a number of experienced, world-class players. Seeking its third title, South Korea opened the scoring against Japan when captain Park Ji-sung, playing his 100th international, earned a penalty in the 23rd minute which Ki Sung-yueng converted. The Blue Samurai leveled in the 36th, when Keisuke Honda sent a perfect through ball to Yuto Nagatomo on the left flank and he crossed low for striker Ryoichi Maeda.
Three-time champions Japan took the lead in extra time when Hwang Jae Won brought down Shinji Okazaki at the edge of the penalty area, and a penalty was contentiously awarded. Keisuke Honda missed the spot-kick but substitute midfielder Hajime Hosogai was first to the rebound, driving the ball into the roof of the net. "It was quite strange when the referee pointed outside the penalty area and the linesman pointed inside," South Korea coach Cho Kwang-rae said. "It's part of the game and I respect the decision of the referee."
Hwang made up for his earlier mistake by scoring a late equalizer in the dying seconds of extra time that sent the match to penalties. The Koreans seemed to have the momentum but couldn't find the net in the shootout, missing one shot and having two others stopped by goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima.
"After we scored, I really thought we would win this game," Ki said. "We were just unlucky in the penalty kicks. That is just football."
Japan coach Alberto Zaccheroni conceded the South Koreans had his team on the backfoot for much of the second half. "It was a very tough, very tight game," he said. "We were better in the first half, especially on the flanks, and had three big chances - but we conceded early. South Korea outran us in the second half. They are a very good team and winning against a very good team makes it even sweeter."
South Korea coach Cho Kwang-rae blamed his players' poor penalty shooting on fatigue after playing their second extra-time match in a row.
"They never gave up and controlled the game, pressurized and in last minute scored a second goal to level the match," Cho said. "We showed how strong we are, our fighting spirit and a passion to play good football."
Uzbekistan came into its first semifinal talking confidently about facing a team it insisted was not Brazil. But once it took the pitch, its defense fell apart and Australia - which had seven goals all tournament - scored at will.
After Kewell's goal, the Uzbeks went 2-0 down in the 34th minute when Tim Cahill headed down a free kick; Sasa Ognenovski had time to take a touch before ramming the ball home for his first international goal.
"It stunned them a little bit," captain Lucas Neill said of the earlier goals. "You get that first jab in a fight it kind of knocks them off their feet. But they come in, they come back at us, they were creating chances. But as soon as you get the second, it's very hard, down two-nil going into halftime."
David Carney made it 3-0 in the 65th after being played in by Matt McKay, and Uzbekistan's slim chances of a comeback ended when Ulugbek Bakaev was sent off two minutes later for his second booking.
Substitute Brett Emerton scored the fourth in the 74th before Carl Valeri and Robbie Kruse - courtesy of a goalkeeper
error _ wrapped up the scoring with two goals in two minutes. "What a game, I really enjoyed it," said the 28-year-old McKay, who received the man-of-the-match award. "It's unbelievable to be playing in the final. It's a great opportunity for us to win silverware. I'm loving every minute of it."
The Uzbek coach Vadim Abramov apologized to Uzbek fans and appeared stunned by his team's poor play.
"The way we played today, I cannot describe it," he said. "We were prepared but we played badly, this is a big problem, we made too many mistakes," he said. "Up until now, I believed that we could beat Australia and win the tournament. I don't know what happened. After the second goal, we wanted to attack but we made too many mistake at the back."