Posted on January 29, 2011

A game played to the highest standards - and one in which both Japan and Australia shone throughout the 120 minutes - deserved to be decided by a goal of the finest calibre.

And in Tadanari Lee’s crisp, perfectly executed extra-time volley, the 15th AFC Asian Cup final had a fitting flourish 11 minutes before the end of a deciding match that will rank with the greatest the continental championship has ever seen.

The Sanfrecce Hiroshima forward’s left-footed shot into the corner of Mark Schwarzer’s goal encapsulated the spirit of the occasion, with the quality of the football on offer underlining just why there are reasons to be confident about the future of the Asian game.

While Lee’s goal sparked jubilation as the Japanese claimed a record-breaking fourth AFC Asian Cup, it also brought a more sombre reaction from those dressed in yellow and gold.

Throughout the tournament in Qatar the Australians have won friends and fans with their never-say-die attitude and determined, spirited performances.

They have mixed quality with precision but at the shimmering Khalifa Stadium on Saturday evening it was not enough to outdo Alberto Zaccheroni’s side.

Under the iconic arch at the heart of the state-of-the-art Aspire Zone, the Japanese prevailed as Zaccheroni’s tactical nous delivered a win for the Samurai Blue as the Italian’s decision to push Yuto Nagatomo further forward as the game wore on unsettled the Australian defence.

It was from the Cesena defender’s cross from the left that the Socceroos conceded only their second goal of the tournament as Lee had the time and space to crash home a fine volley that Schwarzer could only admire.

The goal sent the 37,174 fans within the stadium into a frenzy, with the hardy band of Japanese supporters among the crowd screaming themselves hoarse in celebration.

They had come to Doha in all their usual finery, decked out in their blue shirts and launching themselves into a hearty rendition of ‘Kimigayo’, Japan’s national anthem, as the teams prepared for kick-off.

Holger Osieck, the Socceroos’ coach, was also in fine voice, the German already having learned the words to ‘Advance Australia Fair’ and in the opening exchanges it was his team who looked to be more on song than the Japanese.

With Arabic drums beating out a rhythm high in the stands and with the rattle of the ubiquitous thunder sticks reverberating around the stadium, the atmosphere was an intoxicating mix of all the flavours that made this AFC Asian Cup final such a special occasion.

Eventually the Japanese established themselves after a slow start and soon a fabulous contest was on display, with Japan’s fluid passing precision meeting Australia’s resilience and determination headlong.

Throughout all 120 minutes of a wonderful game, the passion never evaporated and the tension never abated, but in the end it was Japan who prevailed thanks to Lee’s stunning strike.

It was a fitting end to a fine game and, ultimately, a fabulous AFC Asian Cup Qatar 2011