Uchida remembers 2011 triumph
Kuala Lumpur: Recently crowned AFC Champions League winner with Kashima Antlers, Atsuto Uchida first experienced the feeling of becoming an Asian champion back in 2011, when he helped Japan win the AFC Asian Cup in Qatar.
Just a few months after leaving his boyhood club Kashima to join Bundesliga side Schalke 04, Uchida was called up for the Samurai Blue as coach Alberto Zaccheroni looked to lead Japan to a record fourth continental title.
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Deployed on the right side of defence, Uchida started all but one of Japan’s matches in the 2011 AFC Asian Cup.
“There was a feeling of it being a chance to show what you could do,” reflected the now 30-year-old.
“Playing at a big tournament, I felt comfortable under the pressure. I was playing my club football at Schalke 04 at the time and every week there were 60,000 or 70,000 fans watching me, so I was used to playing under that kind of pressure.”
Pressure on Uchida and co intensified after the opening match saw them labour to salvage a point in added time against a Jordan side making just their second appearance on the continental stage.
“It’s always difficult against teams from West Asia. We have played against China PR and Korea Republic quite a bit and so more or less know them, and we have an idea of the leagues in those countries, but for West Asian teams, we often don’t really know the players.”
With two more West Asian sides making up Japan’s group, they had to adapt quickly to get back to winning ways, which they did in the following game. Keisuke Honda scored the winner from the spot eight minutes from time after Syria’s Feras Al Khatib had cancelled out Makoto Hasebe’s opener.
The first three points in the bag, Japan grew in confidence, and by the time they faced arch-rivals Saudi Arabia in the final group stage match, they were firing on all cylinders. Shinji Okazaki netted a hat-trick and Ryoichi Maeda added two as the Samurai Blue ran riot in a 5-0 victory to seal a quarter-final spot.
For Uchida, the joy of qualification was marred by a feeling of disappointment as he picked up a yellow card for the second game running, meaning he would miss the knock-out clash against hosts Qatar.
“I remember that after the Group Stage we played against Qatar. They had great speed and real technical ability."
The Qataris’ technical abilities caused Japan all sorts of troubles; centre-back Yoshida was booked and then sent-off in the space of 15 minutes, and Zaccheroni’s men again needed a defender to rescue them at the death. This time it was Uchida’s replacement, Masahiko Inoha, who bagged the winner in a thrilling 3-2 victory.
Onto the last four Japan marched, and waiting for them on the other side were familiar foes Korea Republic, their first East Asian opponents in the campaign. There would be no late winners this time, as the tie went into a penalty shootout.
Maeda had scored in the first half to equalise for the Samurai Blue after Ki Sung-yueng had put Korea Republic in front, and the two sides exchanged strikes in extra time. Goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima starred to save two penalties and Hong Jeong-ho missed a third, meaning Yasuyuki Konno’s success from the spot sent Japan into the final.
“The AFC Asian Cup felt different; there was a sense of difficulty and the tempo was slower, the pitches felt different, the ball was different.
“Of course, there is all kinds of history that is tied up within the tournament too, and it is a really important event."
History was indeed on the cards as Japan faced Australia in the final at Khalifa International Stadium in Doha. Uchida and co were aiming to move clear of Saudi Arabia as record winners, by adding a fourth title, while the Socceroos were dreaming of a first AFC Asian Cup title in just their second appearance since joining the AFC.
“In the final, we faced Australia, a team we often come across at the AFC Asian Cup and FIFA World Cup qualifiers as well, and every time it is a really tight contest.
“There’s not really a big difference between the level of the teams. Physically and in terms of tactics we are very different, but we play at pretty much the same level.”
It was indeed another tightly contested affair. Uchida and the Japanese defence were successful in keeping the likes of Harry Kewell and Tim Cahill at bay for the entirety of the 90 minutes, as well as the half hour of extra time.
Uchida played the entire 120 minutes, being withdrawn in the last minute of extra time as Zaccheroni, with the win already secured, looked to run down the clock. The winning goal, however came from a man who had only made one appearance from the bench in the tournament hitherto.
“In the tournament, you start to get two groups; the players who are playing and those who aren’t, although back then it was Tadanari Lee who ended up scoring the winner in the final.
“You do get players who work their way into the side throughout the competition and are suddenly handed chances by the manager. Things like the amount of games and whether you progress to the next round all become factors."
Lee’s volley from Yuto Nagatomo’s cross in the 109th minute had sealed a record fourth title for Japan in front 37,000 fans.
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