Japan 3-2 Qatar
Doha, 21/01/11
Scorers: Sebastian 12, Fabio Cesar 63 (Qatar); Kagawa 28, 70, Inoha 90 (Japan)

Japan’s title credentials were given a major challenge by hosts Qatar, as they managed to scramble over the finish line and book a place in the Semi-Finals.

Qatar started brightly as Japan seemed to be having a bad day at the office. Qatar’s Mesaad Al-Hamad had the best chances of the opening exchanges, firing a decent effort from close and long-range to put the returning goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima to the test. But it was Qatar’s star striker Sebastian Soria who was first to find the back of the net. A defence-splitting pass from midfield looked offside, as it set Sebastian one-on-one with Kawashima. The forward, with time to control the ball and even allow some defenders to catch up, eventually struck the ball underneath the ‘keeper to give the hosts the lead. Replays showed Soria was in fact onside, and Qatar deserved no less. It was slightly tainted however by the forced substitution of Ibrahim Majid, who was injured shortly before the goal, with what looked like a pulled hamstring.

Japan struggled to get into the game, their first decent effort coming in the 25th minute as Yuto Nagatomo’s shot flew wide of the post. Shortly after, however, Japan scored a goal worthy of champions. Keisuke Honda chipped the ball into the box to find Shinji Okazaki, who then lobbed the ball over Qatar’s goalkeeper Qasem Burhan, and Shinji Kagawa was ready to head the ball into the net before any defenders could reach it.

Both teams huffed and puffed for the remainder of the half, but any meaningful chances were few and far between, Makoto Hasebe’s long-range effort for Japan requiring a decent save being the best on offer. Half-time came with the score at 1-1, and the game finely balanced.

The second-half didn’t start well for Japan, as Maya Yoshida was booked for a foul within the first minute of the restart. Again, chances were scarce, as Okazaki’s header fizzed wide in the 57th minute to remind the fans they were in fact watching a football game. But things were about to get interesting.

In the 61st minute, Yoshida was judged to have pulled down his opposition to the left of his box, and the referee brandished a very harsh second yellow, leaving Japan to fight on with 10 men. To add insult to injury, Qatar managed to score an impossible goal from the resulting free kick.

Fabio Cesar Montezine stepped up to take the free-kick, curled the ball around the wall and into the bottom corner, to the dismay of the goalkeeper. Fabio Cesar’s Brazilian heritage was clearly shining through, as it seemed as though Qatar were destined to defeat Japan and claim the UFWC title, and a place in the Semi-Final of the tournament they were hosting.

Sadly those hopes of an incredible result were put on hold only seven minutes later. A rare defensive blunder for Qatar somehow found Kagawa one-on-one with the goalkeeper inside the box, and he didn’t let the pressure get to him as he gave his team an equaliser for the second time in the match.

As the clock ticked on, it seemed as though the match was going to extra time. Japan created very few chances, while Qatar struggled to break through also. A clever one-two corner by Qatar could have led to a goal as the shot flew over the mass of bodies, however Kawashima was alert to the danger.

Despite being far from their best, Japan persevered, and were rewarded in the last minute of normal time. A low ball was fired into the box which found Kagawa, who was in search of a hat-trick. However a lunging tackle brought him crashing to the ground, something that would surely have resulted in a penalty, if the ball had not fallen to Masahiko Inoha who was simply able to fire the ball into an open net to give Japan the lead.

Despite the clearly broken hearts on Qatar’s bench, the players on the pitch persevered, firing in a string of corners but none bringing that elusive equaliser. Eventually the referee called an end to proceedings, to the delight of the Japanese, defending the UFWC title by the skin of their teeth, and advancing to the Semi-Final of the Asian Cup.

Their next defence will be against the winner of Iran vs South Korea (being played tomorrow) on January 25th, and we can only hope that match is as entertaining as this one was.

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