The two top-ranked teams in Asia go head-to-head for the continent's biggest prize.Australia will take part in the Asian Cup final for the first time in their history on Saturday in Doha, as Japan look for their fourth title.
If Alberto Zaccheroni were to lead the Samurai Blue to victory it would make them the most successful team in the history of the competition (Iran and Saudi Arabia also have three Asian Cup trophies to their name).
In their way stands Asia’s top-ranked team according to FIFA, though at times during this tournament they haven’t lived up to their billing.
The cliché goes that a champion team is able to win without playing well, though it would be unfair to suggest Australia’s victories against Iraq and Uzbekistan were undeserved.
Facing the defending champions at the quarter final stage appeared to galvanize Holger Osieck’s men, who turned in their best display of the tournament before dismantling a poor Uzbekistan.
They’ve hit top form at the right time after an unconvincing start during the group stages and in that respect their campaign has been similar to Japan’s.
Arriving in Qatar as the form team, boasting European stars Keisuke Honda and Shinji Kagawa, the Japanese made hard work of what should have been a straightforward group.
Just as Australia’s win over Iraq was a turning point in their campaign, so to was the stirring comeback Japan managed against the hosts at the same stage.
Down to ten men, the underperforming Kagawa burst into life with a match-winning double and his absence through injury in the final is a huge blow to his team’s chances.
Japan have also just been through a gruelling 120 minutes against South Korea, where Eiji Kawashima was the hero on penalties, bouncing back after a disastrous individual display against Qatar.
That match will have taken a lot out of Japan both mentally and physically, though the return of starting centre-back Maya Yoshida from suspension is important.
Australia are sweating over the fitness of Tim Cahill, who hasn’t had much of an impact at this tournament.
It has instead been the performances of Brisbane Roar captain Matt McKay that have caught the eye:s the midfielder has laid on four assists in his last two games and has nailed down a starting spot in the line-up alongside more established European stars.
His energy, distribution and ability to link up with both David Carney and Harry Kewell down the left flank will be crucial to Australia’s chances.
Keisuke Honda’s creative talents will be just as important to Japan given the absence of Kagawa, while captain Makoto Hasebe has been superb.
On current form Australia look the more balanced side with a striker in form in Harry Kewell, an effective midfield system and a miserly back-line marshalled by Sasa Ognenovski and Lucas Neill.
Japan’s defence has let in six goals to Australia’s one and this has largely been due to the absence of usual central pairing Yuji Nakazawa and Tulio Tanaka, who missed the tournament through injury.
They do however have a midfield that is far superior technically to Australia’s, while left back Yuto Nagatomo has been one of the stars of the Asian Cup.
There are a couple of layers to this match given the stylistic differences between the two sides and their colourful history on the pitch, which really began on June 12, 2006 in Kaiserslautern.
It was then that Tim Cahill wrote a famous chapter in Australia’s football history with his two dramatic late goals to sink the Japanese, kicking off a rivalry that will be mutually enjoyed for years to come.
Japan of course got a measure of revenge when they knocked the Socceroos out of the 2007 Asian Cup on penalties at the quarter-final stage. The stakes are considerably higher this time around.
Tim Cahill will play despite previous concerns over his fitness, while Matt McKay is certain to retain his place in what should be an unchaged line-up.
Probable starting XI: (4-2-3-1) Schwarzer; Wilkshire, Ognenovski, Neill, Carney; Valeri, Jedinak; Holman, Cahill, McKay; Kewell
Maya Yoshida returns from suspension to take his place at the heart of the Japanese defence while Shinji Kagawa is ruled out with with a broken foot and Nagoya playmaker Jungo Fujimoto is likely to replace him.
Probable starting XI: (4-2-3-1) Kawashima; Uchida, Konno, Yoshida, Nagatomo; Endo, Hasebe; Okazaki, Honda, Fujimoto; Maeda
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