Japan make hard work of Qatar victory but remain on course for Olympic berth

Japan are through to the AFC U-23 Asian Cup semifinals but made hard work of a 4-2 extra-time win over Qatar, especially considering they enjoyed a numerical advantage from the 41st minute after the opposition had their goalkeeper sent off. Zhizhao Wu/Getty Images

In the end, as always is the case, the win is the only thing that matters.

But as Japan claimed a 4-2 extra-time triumph over Qatar to advance into the AFC U-23 Asian Cup semifinals, keeping alive their hopes of qualifying for the men's football tournament at this year's Olympic Games in the process, there will certainly be a sense that it could have been far more straightforward.

Not because of the quality of the opposition they were up against.

Qatar are after all a formidable challenge, having breezed through the group stage by finishing top of Group A with two wins and a draw despite facing some tricky tests against Indonesia, Jordan and Australia.

At senior level, the Qataris have also won the past two AFC Asian Cups -- the most recent of which coming just back in February -- and their U-23 outfit had the luxury of being able to call upon a handful from that triumphant side.

Instead, it was the complexion of the tie that Japan should really have capitalised on for a smoother journey into the last four, rather than a gruelling 120-minute encounter that could yet take its toll come their next outing.

The Samurai Blue could not have asked for a better start as they took the lead inside just 65 seconds, after Fuki Yamada pounced on a loose backward pass by Saifeldeen Hassan outside the Qatar area and proceeded to lash an unstoppable effort into the back of the net.

With the support of the home fans, Qatar were always going to stand a chance to muster a response as they duly delivered in the 24th minute - when a tantalising right-wing cross from Abdullah Al-Yazidi was converted by an equally-brilliant header by Ahmed Al-Rawi.

Then, four minutes before halftime, controversy arose when Qatar goalkeeper Youssef Abdullah Baliadeh charged to the edge of his box to nip in ahead of Mao Hosoya and head clear a threatening foray forward by Japan.

Hosoya was down in pain and, while there did not appear to be much in it at first glance, replays would show that Yousef had extended a foot in midair and landed his studs right into the stomach of the Japanese striker.

These replays were soon viewed by referee Hanna Hattab at the behest of VAR and it did not take him too long to head back onto the field to issue Youssef a straight red.

Those of a Qatari persuasion will undoubtedly deem the dismissal harsh and argue the movement of Youssef's right foot was simply a means for him to gain elevation while jumping in the air.

Still, others will acknowledge that there was undeniably a kicking-out motion and Qatar are unlikely to gain much sympathy, especially from the Indonesian football fraternity - who were furious with some refereeing decision that went against them when they took on the hosts in their Group A opener.

Somehow, even with the numerical deficit, Qatar would go on to score the next goal four minutes after the restart - again proving to be effective from aerial situations as Jassem Gaber met a Mostafa Meshaal freekick from deep with a perfectly-placed header past Leo Kokubo.

At this point, a real upset was on the cards and there would surely have been repercussions for Japan coach Go Oiwa had his side been eliminated despite playing an entire half with a man's advantage.

Nonetheless, given the quality Japan do possess, it was always going to be difficult for Qatar to keep them at bay for such a prolonged period -- even if they had been playing with their full complement of players.

Centre-back Seiji Kimura would come good in the 67th minute when he headed home a Rihito Yamamoto corner for his second goal of the evening but, as the Samurai Blue front two of Hosoya and Shota Fujio contrived to waste a host of gilt-edged opportunities, the tie then went into extra-time.

Once again, it looked like it just might not be Japan's evening despite plenty of their stars aligning, as Qatar continued to show admirable resolve in hope of taking the game to the lottery of the penalty shootout.

Ultimately, that was not needed.

11 minutes into extra-time, Hosoya finally found his scoring touch as he coolly took Ryotaro Araki's slide-rule pass into his stride before firing through the legs of Ali Nader Mahmoud, before Kotaro Uchino -- his replacement a few minutes later -- sealed the win with a close-range finish seven minutes from time.

Now into the semifinals, Japan are just one win away from booking their ticket to Paris and extending a commendable run of featuring at the past seven consecutive Olympics dating back to 1996.

That is the only thing that matters and, yet, perhaps it really should not have been as difficult as it was.