DOHA // After enduring a one-game suspension and some shaky moments at the Asian Cup, Eiji Kawashima, the Japan goalkeeper, faced his toughest moment yet when his team went to a penalty shoot-out against South Korea in Tuesday's semi-final.
"I had to just focus on saving the goals," the 27-year-old Kawashima said. "I was thinking the first one would be really important so it's good I could save it. I just had to believe in myself."
Kawashima turned out to be the match-winner, stopping the first two South Korean penalties and watching a third go wide as Japan advanced to Saturday's final against Australia.
Gone were the doubts raised after he was sent off against Syria during the group stages.
After sitting out the final qualifying match, he returned against Qatar in the quarter-finals. But his performance came under fire after he let Sebastian Soria slip one past him in the 12th minute.
He then misjudged a free kick from Fabio Cesar in the 62nd minute and briefly gave Qatar the lead. He said later he had been blinded and failed to see the ball which squeezed past him.
Kawashima, who plays for Lierse, the Belgian club, said: "It was not only me. For the team, it's been difficult.
"But we are growing up as a team and in the final we would like to show how we are."
Despite those problems, Alberto Zaccheroni, the Japan coach, has stood by Kawashima.
"A couple of days ago, I told Kawashima that I trusted him very much and told him the same today," the Italian said. "He did more than I expected."
The bad news for Japan is that Shinji Kagawa will miss the final after fracturing the fifth metatarsal in his right foot on Tuesday.
The 21-year-old Borussia Dortmund striker was "receiving treatment" and did not take part in training yesterday. The Japan Football Association last night confirmed he was out of the final.
Kagawa, who has emerged as a star in the Bundesliga this season after scoring eight goals, played a crucial role in the quarter-final win over Qatar. He scored two goals and set up another.