Japan prove that class is permanent against in-form Uzbekistan to win AFC U-23 Asian Cup

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There is a frequent saying in sport that form is temporary but class is permanent.

And that certainly proved to be the case at Jassim bin Hamad Stadium on Friday -- although that is not to say that either of the two teams contesting the 2024 AFC U-23 Asian Cup final were lacking either.

But there was certainly a distinction between traditional powerhouses Japan, who have set the standard in Asian football for almost three decades now, and the tournament's in-form team in Uzbekistan, who marched into the final on the back of five consecutive victories with a formidable tally of 14 goals scored and none conceded.

In the end, it was Japan who prevailed 1-0 courtesy of Fuki Yamada's 91st-minute winner -- which was not even the final bit of late drama in what always promised to be -- and ultimately eventuated in -- an intriguing final.

Yet, for quite a while, it did look as though the high-flying upstarts would prevail.

Making the better start from the opening whistle, the Uzbeks took no time to find their rhythm with Japan quickly on the back foot.

Despite possession of the ball being a key component of the Japanese footballing identity, it was Uzbekistan who dominated proceedings in the first half as their opponents struggled to offer much of a threat in their attacking third.

Nonetheless, it is hard to keep a good side down and the Samurai Blue slowly but surely clicked into gear after halftime.

Still, with neither team able to find the breakthrough in the 90 minutes, it did look like extra-time and perhaps penalties would be required to separate two evenly-matched competitors.

Until the first minute of injury time when a rare mistake from the Uzbeks was duly punished after they lost possession just inside their own half and Japan -- sensing the opportunity they had been waiting for all evening long -- immediately clicked into offensive mode.

As the ball reached Ryotari Araki, among Japan's most-talented individuals but one who has not exactly performed as his best at the tournament, he produced a nonchalant flick with his heel without even looking over his shoulder but instantaneously found Yamada, who proceeded to drill a low 20-yard drive past Abduvohid Nematov's despairing dive into the bottom corner.

From the speed of transition to the assist and then the finish, every bit typified the class that Japan have come to be associated with.

Uzbekistan were not going to thrown in the towel though, not even at that late stage. That would have been true to form after the spirited and indomitable displays they have produced all tournament long.

Their chance looked to have come in the 100th minute when -- upon VAR review -- they were awarded a penalty for handball.

With captain and playmaker Jasurbek Jaloliddinov already substituted, it was Umarali Rakhmonaliev who stepped up to the spot but his hopes of being his side's saviour would soon be thwarted by a fine save by Leo Kokubo, the Japan custodian currently on the books of Portuguese Liga giants Benfica, who in turn became the hero for his team.

Not too long after, as the final whistle rang in the Al Rayyan sky, it was a classy and composed Japan outfit that were celebrating a second AFC U-23 title.

Understandably, there was despair emanating from the Uzbekistan camp but they should depart Qatar with their heads held high.

They played the final without three key players including the Europe-based duo of Abbosbek Fayzullaev and Abdukodir Khusanov, who very creditably ply their trades for CSKA Moscow and Lens respectively.

Had the two of them -- and Khojimat Erkinov -- been present for the decider, it might have been a far different story.

Uzbekistan nevertheless depart the competition with a maiden appearance in the men's football tournament at the Olympic Games to look forward to later this year.

They continue to show that they are a rising force in Asia, and few would refute that they were the best team throughout the tournament.

While they certainly were riding on their outstanding form, they also showed plenty of their quality.

Perhaps it was more to do with Samurai Blue, who were arguably far from at their best over the past fortnight or so and still found a way to win it all.

As they get to celebrate becoming the first two-time champions of the U-23 Asian Cup, Japan showed that, for the form that was temporary, their class is permanent.