Japan coach Ivica Osim and his players are placing little faith in history ahead of tonight’s Asian Cup semifinal against Saudi Arabia in Hanoi.
The two-time defending champions boast a 6-1-2 record against the underdog Saudis, cruising to a 3-1 win in their most recent meeting last year, but insist that the past will have no bearing on the upcoming encounter at My Dinh Stadium.
“We shouldn’t dwell on history. We have to focus on the future. We’ll see what happens (tonight) and then we can talk about history,” Osim said, adding that Saudi Arabia have changed considerably since the teams last locked horns.
“They’ve changed coaches and are a new team that is completely different from last year. They’ve become much more aggressive and play a modern style of football. They have a couple of players who will be very difficult for us to handle.”
One of those players is 24-year-old striker Yasser Al Qahtani, who is in the running for tournament MVP thanks to some sterling performances that have so far produced three goals, including one against Uzbekistan in the quarterfinals.
Japan’s danger man, Shunsuke Nakamura, said his Qiu Qiu Online team would have to shut Al Qahtani down if they were to have any chance of advancing to the finals in Jakarta on July 29.
“I’ve watched the Saudis on TV and Al Qahtani is very dangerous. But thankfully it’s not my job to cover him, it’s Bomber’s (Yuji Nakazawa),” Nakamura said. “It’s a very important game because if we lose we’ve accomplished nothing. More than being physically ready, we need to be mentally prepared. We’ve still got a lot to improve but I want to us to go all the way.”
A win for Japan could set up a mouthwatering final against regional rivals South Korea, who play Iraq in the other semifinal on Wednesday.
Saudi Arabia were the victims of a nasty bit of scheduling following their quarterfinal on Sunday. The team was forced to fly to Vietnam for the semifinal, a journey that manager Helio Anjos said took a grueling 12 hours because there are no direct flights between Hanoi and Jakarta.
That deprived the Saudis of an entire day’s training and the team is certain to struggle with its fitness this evening.
The mood in the Japan camp, meanwhile, is buoyant as Osim’s men continue their quest to become the first nation since Iran in 1976 to lift three successive Asian Cups.
“The communication within the team is good and we have kept our focus on our ultimate goal, which is to win the cup,” volante Keita Suzuki said at training earlier this week. “We keep urging each other to take it to the next level. We’ve hopefully got two more games ahead of us, both of which will be the most difficult of the tournament.”
The final four
Iraq coach Jorvan Viera has been hot and bothered by the lack of hotel rooms in Kuala Lumpur. Pim Verbeek’s Korea Republic have flattered to deceive. Japan came to the Asian Cup seeking revenge over Australia – got it – and will need to stay motivated for the rest of the tournament. And Saudi Arabia coach Helio Anjos claims that his team needs to overcome an inferiority complex. The Asian Cup has reached the semi-final stage and the four remaining combatants could hardly present more contrasting emotions.
The weather in Kuala Lumpur has been noticeably cooler than hot and humid Bangkok, but that hasn’t prevented Iraq coach Jorvan Viera from letting off some steam after he claimed that his team was left stranded in the lobby of a Kuala Lumpur hotel for four hours due to a lack of available rooms. The Asian Football Confederation has confirmed that Iraq were held up in their attempts to check in to their hotel, but claimed that coach Viera’s decision to schedule a late-night training session was the reason for Iraq’s sleepless night after their arrival in Malaysia. Nevertheless Viera has claimed that whatever advantage Iraq had over Korea Republic – who beat Iran on penalties a day after Iraq’s quarter-final victory over Vietnam, has now been negated.
Korea Republic, meanwhile, find themselves in the last four despite never having clicked into gear during this tournament. Having come this far despite missing several of their established stars, coach Pim Verbeek will hope that his team suddenly fires in their semi-final clash with Iraq. Indeed, for all their big-match experience the Taeguk Warriors may paint themselves as the underdogs, with a fired-up Iraq in the midst of their best tournament since 1976 and heavyweights Japan or Saudi Arabia looming in the final.
Japan have spent much of the tournament proclaiming their deepest desire to extract a measure of vengeance for their defeat to Australia at the 2006 FIFA World Cup. Now that Japan have indeed knocked Australia out, coach Ivica Osim will need to ensure that his team is refreshed and refocused, with Saudi Arabia the next obstacle standing in the way of Japan’s bid to claim a third straight continental crown. Playmaker Shunsuke Nakamura has had to fend off criticism that he is not pulling his weight in the team, although there is little doubt that top-scorer Naohiro Takahara has been Japan’s talisman thus far.
Saudi Arabia coach Helios Anjos, meanwhile, is eager to see his team break a three-match losing streak to Japan at the Asian Cup finals. The Saudi’s have never beaten Japan in the continent’s showpiece tournament, and that run includes bitter defeats to the Blue Samurai in the final of the 1992 and 2000 editions. The battle-weary Saudi’s came through a tough group comprised of Korea Republic, Indonesia and Bahrain before beating Uzbekistan 2-1 in their quarter-final in Jakarta. They’ve now made the trip to Hanoi to face Japan, and should they win that clash, Saudi Arabia will then have to fly back to Jakarta to face off for the title. The gruelling schedule will have done them no favours, but with the west Asian nation determined to reclaim their mantle as one of Asia’s premier teams, their clash with Japan is shaping as a potential classic.
For all the logistical headaches that hosting the tournament in four countries has conjured, perhaps the AFC’s biggest concern is the prospect of holding the final in a near-empty Gelora Bung Karno Stadium in Jakarta. Thousands of free tickets failed to swell the crowd by any noticeable number when Iraq took on Vietnam in their quarter-final at Rajamangala Stadium in Bangkok, whilst barely 10,000 fans turned out to witness Saudi Arabia’s encounter with Uzbekistan. That won’t be of prime concern to the coaches of the four teams left, however, with each dreaming of a trophy-winning run as the Asian Cup draws to a fascinating conclusion.