Japan aim to rely on pace against Aussie power
Power against pace is how the meeting between Australia and three-time champions Japan is being billed as the countdown towards this evening's Asian Cup final at Doha's Khalifa Stadium clicks ever lower.
The physically imposing Socceroos have qualified for the country's first-ever Asian Cup final by displaying a defensive rigidity that has seen them concede only once in five games while punishing teams on the counterattack. But if the fleet-footed and technically superior Japanese are concerned about the battle that lies ahead, coach Alberto Zaccheroni was not letting on.
'Since I've been in charge of the national team of Japan, I have been told we don't like to play against Middle Eastern teams and South Korea, but I don't feel that at all,' the Italian tactician said.
'I tell the players that we have to respect other teams, but also that we shouldn't be scared to play against any team, and I think the players understand that and I think they have the right attitude to be able to play against them [today].'
Should Zaccheroni and his team emerge successful, they will have captured a record fourth Asian Cup title for Japan - an astonishing achievement for a country that had to wait until 1992 to claim their first success in the quadrennial championship. Since then, the Japanese won in 2000 and 2004, making this the country's fourth final in 19 years.
The achievement of reaching this year's final has been managed by a team who have improved steadily throughout the tournament and who qualified thanks to a penalty shootout win over South Korea. But that victory was not without its downside, with the Japanese losing the services of Borussia Dortmund hotshot Shinji Kagawa, who will miss the final with a broken metatarsal.
'It's very disappointing for the team, and if you think about him, it's disappointing for him as well,' Zaccheroni said of the 21-year-old's enforced absence.
'He contributed a lot on the way to the final especially as his condition was getting better and better, so it's very disappointing. He definitely contributed a lot to get us to the final.
'But I have the player who is going to replace him in my head already, I know this player well through watching the J.League and other games, so I'm really trusting him.'
The meeting between the two teams sees Australia coach Holger Osieck renew his acquaintance with several of Zaccheroni's squad, most notably Japan captain Makoto Hasebe, who the German coached at J.League side Urawa Reds.
Osieck led the Reds to the Asian Champions League title in 2007, with Hasebe one of the linchpins of his midfield, but the former Canada coach attempted to play down the significance of his time in Japan.
'Knowledge is one thing, but to transfer that into actions is another,' he said. 'To know is always good, but to make things happen is not always easy.
'Japan are a strong team, a new generation is coming up and there is new talent and they are good players, and I expect a very interesting and challenging game.'
Australia captain Lucas Neill, meanwhile, is hoping for victory over the Japanese to help eradicate the negative memories of the country's previous participation, when they exited the 2007 competition in a penalty shootout against Japan in the quarter-finals.
'There's been a group of people who have been together for a long time, who have lifted and raised the level of football in Australia, and I think it would be a nice reward, something good on the CV, but that doesn't necessarily mean we will get it,' the Galatasaray defender said.
'Japan stand in our way and you don't get many chances as a player to win things, and this team are very focused on doing that after some less than favourable moments in tournaments,' Neill added.
The number of times Japan will have won the Asian Cup if they win tonight would be a record at: 4