It was a compelling collision of speed and quickness versus strength and size, and Asia's two best sides battered each other with their diametrically opposed styles, until the extra-time goal from Lee.
One mistake cost us, says Australia coach Holger Osieck
DOHA // It was a compelling collision of speed and quickness versus strength and size, and for nearly two hours Asia's two best sides battered each other with their diametrically opposed styles.
Neither could establish superiority, Japan advancing on the ground and Australia through the air, and the unsatisfying prospect of another shoot-out hung over Khalifa Stadium like a dark cloud.
Finally, Japan pulled apart the exhausted Australian defence. Yuto Nagatomo, who had tormented Australia up the left flank almost from the first kick, found space in the corner, floated a long cross to Tadanari Lee.
The substitute forward hammered home a sublime, side-swinging left-footed volley in the 109th minute as Japan won the Asian Cup in memorable fashion, a 1-0 victory before 37,174 fans in Doha last night.
"It was the only position mistake we made and it was a very costly one," Holger Osieck, the Australia coach, said, claiming that fatigue was at the root of his players' failure to get tight on Lee.
"We are disappointed that we ended up second. We had our opportunities but unfortunately we couldn't convert. We had to be more clinical in our finishing. I feel sorry for the boys, they didn't get the reward for all their efforts."
It was Lee's first international goal for Japan, and it seems unlikely he will ever score a bigger one.
Japan have now won the biggest tournament on the planet's largest continent a record four times, all from the past six tournaments, a two-decade run of excellence that would seem to stamp the Japanese as Asia's best and most consistent side for a generation.
They were certainly worthy in this tournament. They twice came from behind to win games - against Qatar in the group stages and South Korea in the semi-finals.
Throughout, Alberto Zaccheroni's team showed cohesion and a fighting spirit worthy of champions.
"We played the entire tournament with great courage and always sought to impose our game," said Japan's Italian coach. "We have a very young team. The bench players have made a big contribution, just as Lee did today."
It was a bitter defeat for Australia. A member of the Asian Football Confederation only since 2006, the Australians and their "golden generation" core of Tim Cahill, Harry Kewell, Lucas Neill and Mark Schwarzer, fell just short of winning their first major championship when they conceded only their second goal in six matches.
It took a remarkable goal, and extra time, before they could be broken down by the indefatigable Japanese.
"We should have won the game," Cahill said. "We had more chances. But they won, and I'm not going to be bitter about it, but it would have meant so much to us to win this tournament."
Keisuke Honda, the Japan midfielder, expressed "great joy" at winning the tournament.
"We attack and always attack," he said, adding that their Italian coach, Zaccheroni, encouraged their press-ahead style.
Lee, an ethnic Korean who was born in Japan and received citizenship in 2007, came on in the 98th minute for Ryoichi Maeda, and he made little impact on the game until he won it.
He had charged down the middle of the pitch as Nagatoma, who plays for Cesena in Italy, beat Luke Wilkshire down the left side.
Lee was behind Sasa Ognenovski, Australia's massive central defender, as Nagatoma's cross came in, true but hard.
Rather than trap the ball in an attempt to set up a perfect shot, a tactic Japanese forwards had been trying without success for much of the night, the 25-year-old striker for Sanfrecce Hiroshima of the J-League let fly with a pivoting volley, which rocketed past the helpless Australian goalkeeper Schwarzer.
The first minutes established the tenor of the game. Japan's clear speed advantage prompted Australia to cede large chunks of the field and lots of possession, but the Japanese were nervous and tentative on those rare chances when they had a look at the goal against the stingiest defence in the tournament.
Meanwhile, when Australia came forward, they inevitably lobbed the ball into the box, and produced the better scoring chances with their superior skills in the air.
Australia's best early chances were all headers. The most dangerous came off a corner in the 19th minute. Cahill flicked David Carney's service toward goal, and Kewell used his head to deflect the shot a foot or so to the right, and the Japan goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima, who was outstanding throughout, did very well to fling his left hand behind him and parry the shot.
Kawashima twice saved Japan late in normal time, each time against Kewell.
In the 72nd minute Kewell flicked the ball over the head of Daiki Iwamusa and bore down on Kawashima, who deflected the shot with his right foot. Then, 13 minutes later, Kawashima bolted from his line to smother the ball an instant before Kewell could chip it over him.
The game went into extra time goalless, and Australia were left to rue those missed chances.