Japan yet to hit top gear but could have timed AFC U-23 Asian Cup title charge to perfection

Although they have not exactly fired on all cylinders, Japan could yet have timed their title charge at the 2024 AFC U-23 Asian Cup to perfection ahead of Friday's final against Uzbekistan. Noushad Thekkayil/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Sometimes, slow and steady does indeed win the race.

That is certainly what Japan are showing -- and hoping proves to be the case -- as they gun for the one more victory they need to become the first two-time champions of the AFC U-23 Asian Cup.

On Friday, Japan will take on Uzbekistan at Jassim bin Hamad Stadium in a final that looks firmly in the balance.

The Samurai Blue do boast the bigger reputation given their history as one of the continent's traditional powerhouses but, based on recent form, Uzbekistan should be written off at one's own peril.

Much of that is down to what the Uzbeks have achieved so far at the tournament.

With 14 goals scored and none conceded en route to racking up five dominant wins, Uzbekistan have been thoroughly impressive and are every bit a chance of claiming a second title of their own following their triumph of 2018.

Nonetheless, part of the reason why there looks to be no clear favourites in Friday's decider could also be down to the fact that Japan just have not fired on all cylinders so far.

Lest that be viewed as a major issue for the Japanese, it could simply turn out to be a classic tale of a team coming good at just the right time.

It must be acknowledged that the Samurai Blue found themselves in arguably the toughest of the four groups, although they would still have been expected to negotiate their way through to the knockout round.

The campaign did start well enough with victories over China and United Arab Emirates yet, in both outings, Japan looked laboured and struggled to muster the incisive and metronomic football they are normally associated with.

With top spot in Group B up for grabs, they then fell to a 1-0 loss to familiar foes South Korea, which not only served as a wake-up call but looked to have handed them a tougher quarterfinal assignment in the form of Group A winners and hosts Qatar.

At this stage, Japan looked far from at their best.

And while strength in depth has always been a key strength of the Japanese -- when it comes to tournament football -- it was difficult to not suspsect that the regular rotation throughout the group stage was more down to the fact that coach Go Oiwa was yet to settle on his strongest XI.

This has been especially evident in defence with Oiwa making three changes to his back four in each of their first four outings with perhaps only Seiji Kimura covering himself in any sort of glory -- and even then, more from him popping up at the other end to score twice and being his team's outright top scorer at one stage, rather than any standout defensive contribution.

When the tournament does eventually come to a close, it will show that Japan claimed a 4-2 win over Qatar in the quarterfinals and yet, it was a result that should have come in far more straightforward circumstances.

After all, Japan had taken the lead after just 65 seconds and then enjoyed a numerical advantage from before halftime when Qatar goalkeeper Youssef Abdullah Baliadeh was sent off for kicking out at an opponent.

Still, the Japanese somehow found themselves trailing in the 49th minute before the numbers game ultimately proved telling -- although they still required extra-time to get the job done.

In spite of them making hard work of the victory, there were signs of improvement -- at least in the front half.

Fuki Yamada has proven to be a real threat cutting in from the right, Kuryu Matsuki was industrious as always in the playmaker role, while Mao Hosoya was getting in excellent scoring positions even if his finishing let him down at times.

Then, up against Iraq in the semifinals, Japan finally produced their most complete display yet at the tournament.

Seemingly finally settled on his preferred backline even though they conceded twice against the Qataris, Oiwa made just two changes to his starting XI -- both further up the field -- with Matsuki dropping to a deeper role alongside captain Joel Chima Fujita, while Ryotaro Araki and Yu Hirakawa were both introduced to add more pace, creativity and directness in the attacking third.

By halftime, Japan were leading 2-0 and, this time, they never looked in danger of relinquishing the lead as they booked their place in the final.

It is still safe to say that the Samurai Blue have yet to produce their best, and they will come up against their toughest test yet on Friday -- with Uzbekistan undeniably the best team at the tournament so far.

But even in second gear, they have still found a way to get this far -- and they have been making small but definite improvements with each passing game.

In their quest to win a second U-23 Asian Cup, Japan may just have timed their charge to perfection.