The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Japanese skill up against Iranian power

Busan, Oct. 12: The Koreans are still in mourning. Of all the medals they have been collecting in different disciplines at the 14th Asian Games, the soccer gold was the most craved one. But the stubborn Iranians spoilt their party, winning a penalty shootout the other night at the Busan Gudeok Stadium.

And to rub it in, the Japanese have earned a shot at snatching the gold from champions Iran. What an atmosphere a Korea-Japan final would have created! Busan would surely have come to a standstill Saturday evening.

It’s just as well for the young Japanese team that they won’t have 55,000 people screaming against them at the Asiad Main Stadium in Saturday’s final.

Masakuni Yamamoto’s boys, in fact, should be the sentimental favourites against their seasoned opponents. When the national under-21 squad, the youngest in this competition, left Japanese shores three weeks ago, they were a laughing stock. Having lost 0-7 to Jubilo Iwata and 0-1 to China in warm-up games, Japan were written off as a team with no plan, so stars and no hope.

The idea, coach Yamamoto explained, was to develop a side for the 2004 Athens Olympics. But even he may not have bargained for so much.

Come to think of it, Yamamoto’s bunch of no-hopers are actually the first Japanese team to be figuring in an Asian Games soccer final.

Japan comfortably topped group D with three comfortable wins — versus Palestine, Bahrain and Uzbekistan.

They edged out China by a solitary goal in the quarters and rode roughshod over the hitherto impressive Thailand in the semis.

“The players are very relaxed as no one expected them to win so many matches here,” said Yamamoto on the eve of the final. But I have told them Iran will be a different ball game.”

For starters, the Iranians are a big, powerful side adept at playing robust soccer. “Our boys are shorter and lighter than the Iranians and that could be a disadvantage. But we have the skill and the heart to fight them all the way.”

There is definitely good talent in the Japan squad. Satoshi Nakayama is an opportunist in the Junichi Inamoto mould, having scored four goals in five games so far — including the matchwinners against Uzbekistan and China.

Yoshito Yokubo, Kazuyuki Morisaki in midfield and central defender Yuichi Nemoto have also struck the imagination of Japan fans. The biggest asset of the team, according to Yamamoto, is the will to fight and succeed as a unit.

Iran, who topped group E following a draw with Qatar, have lost star forward Ali Daei who went home on hearing of his father’s death. The 33-year-old striker didn’t play either the quarter final or semis and Croatian coach Branko Ivankovic is hoping his absence will make no difference once again.

The penalty shootout against Korea took a lot out of the Iranians. The three-time champions will still start with a slight edge.

Whatever the outcome, it promises to be a classical battle.

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