ABU DHABI (AFP) – While Japan have the Asian Cup pedigree, Qatar’s over-achieving players might just feel that their name is on the trophy after a record-breaking run to their first-ever final.
Against the backdrop of simmering political tension, the Qatari players were pelted with plastic bottles – and even shoes – by furious local fans in a 4-0 semi-final thrashing of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in Abu Dhabi.
After surviving that ordeal, the 2022 World Cup hosts believe they have nothing to fear from Japan.
“We have already realised a dream that the whole country had,” said striker Almoez Ali, who equalled Ali Daei’s record of eight goals in a single Asian Cup against the hosts on Tuesday night.
“We will need patience in the final but if we are patient, we have a chance of being champions.”
Japan, who captured the last of their record four Asian titles in 2011, upset tournament favourites Iran 3-0 in Monday’s first semi-final and appear to be peaking at just the right time.
After threatening to bore crowds to death in their first five games, the Blue Samurai go into tonight’s final in the UAE capital unbeaten in 11 matches since Hajime Moriyasu took over as coach after last year’s World Cup.
Yuya Osako’s controversial second-half double floored Iran, and consequently Moriyasu’s new-look Japan are suddenly being tipped to go all the way.
“We talked about going to war before we came out here,” said captain Maya Yoshida, part of the Japan side which scooped the title eight years ago.
“We’re all fighting hard together.”
Japan have never lost an Asian Cup final, while Qatar’s defence have kept a record six clean sheets.
Though finely poised, the Qataris have yet to face a team as clinical as Japan – or one with as much tactical nous.
However, their progress has been truly remarkable given the abuse Qatar have suffered from local fans because of the long-running Gulf blockade of the tiny, energy-rich state.
As Qatar players celebrated beating the UAE, plastic bottles rained down on them – as they had for each of their goals, with midfielder Salem Al-Hajri hit on the head at one point.
“Everybody knows about the problems but we don’t care,” Portugal-born defender Pedro Correia told AFP.
“We just play football. Let the people talk, winning 4-0 is more important.”
Having silenced the haters with six successive victories, the Qatari players are daring to dream.
“It’s a big achievement for the country,” said Maroons coach Felix Sanchez.