More Aussie heartbreak in Asian Cup final loss

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It seems no-one does footballing heartbreak quite like the Socceroos. Following a long tradition of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, Australia missed out on their first major football trophy last weekend after losing the Asian Cup Final 1-0 to Japan in Doha.

Tadanari Lee’s extra-time volley was a strike worthy of winning any championship, but the Aussies will be bitterly disappointed to miss out on the silverware after dominating large periods of the game. But for a Man of the Match performance by Samurai Blue keeper Eiji Kawashima, the Socceroos could have easily secured the Asian title in regulation time, spurning more than half a dozen gilt-edged chances over the 90 minutes.

Tactically, Australia coach Holger Osieck clearly felt the Japanese would struggle against the long ball to frontmen Harry Kewell and Tim Cahill, with the free-roaming Brett Holman clearing out space and right-back Luke Wilkshire providing the ammunition.

And for the first 50 minutes the tactic seemed to work, with Japanese centre-backs Maya Yoshida and Yasuyuki Konno enduring a torrid time against Merseyside’s favourite and not-so-favourite Aussies. But for all the attacking pressure, the Socceroos couldn’t find the back of the net and, when chance after chance went begging for the Green and Gold, the ghosts of Iran ’97 and Kaiserslautern ’06 slowly began to rear their ugly heads.

The course of an entertaining final was changed by two key events in the second half. Firstly, Japanese coach Alberto Zaccheroni elected to switch to three at the back, not only to counter the aerial threat of Cahill and Kewell more effectively, but to give his side more width. Substitute Daiki Iwamasa looked far more comfortable dealing with Australia’s predictable long punts into the box, with the added width allowing wingback Yuto Nagatomo more space to get forward.

Then, in the 72nd minute, came the chance Australia had been waiting for. Kewell found himself bearing down on keeper Kawashima after his defender misjudged the bounce, but as ‘H’ hit a hard left-footed shot towards the bottom corner, the Belgium-based stopper stuck out his trailing foot and scuffed the ball wide. It was Australia’s ‘Arjen Robben moment’, and just as the Oranje forward’s failed one-on-one could have stolen the World Cup for Holland, Kewell’s goal would surely have sealed it for the Socceroos.

If Harry fluffed his lines, Japan forward Tadanari Lee delivered the “You can’t handle the truth!!” monologue with a well-taken winner deep into extra-time. Enjoying far more room after Zaccheroni’s move to 3-4-3, Nagatomo had the beating of a tiring Luke Wilkshire, and after breezing past him on the left flank, put a delightful ball into the area which Tadanari Lee met sweetly on the volley to fire home. Lee was all alone in the box – defender David Carney inexplicably drifting away from his man to cover the near post – but it still required a cool head to beat Schwarzer on the volley.

The moment that broke Aussie hearts (again)

After the game, Osieck acknowledged the match had come down to one defensive mistake but stopped short of singling Carney out as the villain. “It was the only positional mistake and it proved so costly for us,” said the German. “I don’t want to blame anyone for that. It was not our regular defensive positioning, but to have a go at any of our players is definitely inappropriate.”

Down Under the reaction to the loss has been a mixture of disappointment and pride. With many of the ‘Golden Generation’ slated to retire from international duty after the tournament, the Asian Cup represented a final chance for many Socceroos to win a trophy of significance. That it was snatched away in such dramatic circumstances only made the heartbreak more painful.

(Many Aussies recognised the significance of making the final too, with fans booking last-minute flights to Doha to watch their heroes. That many were locked out of the ground by Qatari authorities despite having tickets – rumours were up to 10,000 ‘fans’ were bussed in to make the ground look full – has already raised questions about to the country’s ability to stage the World Cup in 2022.)

There was, however, a real sense of pride in the squad’s achievements in Doha, which featured a gutsy draw against South Korea, a 1-0 win over old enemy Iraq and a superb 6-0 thrashing of Uzbekistan in the semi-finals. Fans looking to the tournament with apprehension, not sure of what to make of a new coach and a new-look squad, are now a little more confident moving into World Cup qualifying for 2014.

Heading into Qatar with questions of depth and age weighing heavily, Osieck proved his worth as coach with both his tactics and team selections. Disregarding an over-reliance on the long ball in the latter stages of the final for a moment, the 62-year-old coach had the Socceroos playing to their strengths during the finals, with their movement and pressuring of opponents a refreshing change to predecessor Pim Verbeek's ethos of lulling opponents (and fans) to sleep.

In A-League-based Matt McKay, Osieck has found a player more than capable of making the step up to international level and despite some early teething problems, midfielder Mile Jedinak looks like keeping his place in the starting XI for the forseeable future. Forward Brett Holman continues to delight and frustrate in equal measure and if Melbourne striker Robbie Kruse can build on a couple of capable cameo spots, the future of the Socceroos may not be as bleak as many thought after South Africa.