The Socceroos are narrow favourites to win tomorrow's match after their semi-final demolition of Uzbekistan
If the semi-final results of the Asian Cup constituted your sole basis for making forecasts, you might be tempted to issue warnings before tomorrow's final of a storm of Australian gloating. After all, the Socceroos won 6-0 against Uzbekistan, one of the highest-ranked teams in the tournament, while Japan edged past South Korea on penalties. But to make such a claim would be to trumpet your own ignorance, and not only because Australia drew with South Korea in the group stages. This final, which is being shown live from Qatar on British Eurosport at 3pm UK time, promises to be keenly contested.
Japan and Australia have brewed a healthy rivalry since their epic battle at the 2006 World Cup. In 2007 it was Japan who thwarted the Socceroos' attempt to waltz into the world's most populous confederation and immediately be crowned kings. Japan beat Australia in the Asian Cup quarter-finals, following a penalty shoot-out.
A broken foot will deprive Japan of their top striker, Borussia Dortmund's Shinji Kagawa, in Sunday's final but the Australia centre-back Sasa Ognenovski reckons the key will be the Socceroos' height advantage and attitude. "From past clashes, even in the Champions League games we've played, they're intimidated by big bodies and by the aggression that's shown by Aussie players," said Ognenovski, seemingly not bothered about sounding cliched.
That, presumably, is because the cliche has often been proved to be true: Japan have struggled against teams who play directly, towards tall forwards. But while the Japan manager, Alberto Zaccheroni, is striving to embed a slick, attacking brand of play through a 4-2-3-1 system that plays to his team's technical strengths, the most recent World Cup suggested that they were no longer as vulnerable physically as Ognenovski thinks they are.
"They probably got the worst possible draw that they could have got at the World Cup," says Ben Mabley, a blogger on Japanese football. "They were pitted against Denmark, Holland and Cameroon, probably three of the biggest teams they could have come up against. Yet they were not overpowered and, thanks to their technique, played their way out of the group. They could do the same against Australia, who are not as good as Japan technically."
Australia, too, are bucking received wisdom – specifically the wisdom imparted by Pim Verbeek, their conservative former coach. Under the German Holger Osieck, Australia have sought to develop an enterprising, high-tempo style, the most complete expression of which was seen the semi-final destruction of Uzbekistan.
Unlike Verbeek, who was openly contemptuous of domestic football in Australia, Osieck has not succumbed to preconceived ideas of players' merits. For example, one of the Socceroos' outstanding performers has been the Brisbane Roar midfielder Matthew McKay, who after impressing in a narrow win over Iraq in the group stages, retained his place for the semi-final ahead of Blackburn's Brett Emerton.
This is meritocracy, not Osieck trying to cultivate an image as some sort of strongman. If he had wanted to do that his first move, à la Steve McClaren with David Beckham, would have been to jettison Harry Kewell: instead he has coaxed the former Liverpool player back to something approaching his best form. Kewell has enjoyed a fine tournament and may be set to confound expectations by sampling glory again.