Japan coach Javier Aguirre claimed the United Arab Emirates “played the game of their lives” as the 2013 Gulf Cup winners knocked the defending champions out of the AFC Asian Cup Australia 2015 on penalties at Stadium Australia on Friday evening.
Shinji Kagawa and Keisuke Honda both missed in the shootout as the UAE won 5-4 on penalties after the game ended 1-1 following 120 minutes of regulation and extra-time.
The win takes the Emirates into the semi-finals for the first time since hosting the championship in 1996, the same tournament the Japanese last were eliminated in the quarter-finals, when they lost 2-0 to Kuwait in Al Ain.
“Football is a game of scoring goals and we could only score once and that’s why the score was 1-1,” said the Mexican. “We had good opportunities in set plays and good possession and I think we were superior to our opponent.
“But they played the match of their lives and I want to congratulate them. They made changes to keep the result and they got that result.”
Ali Mabkhout scored in the seventh minute to give the Emirates the lead and, despite dominating possession, it took Japan until the 81st minute for Gaku Shibasaki to level with a shot from the edge of the penalty area.
Extra-time could not separate the teams and the game went to penalties, with Honda missing Japan’s first spot-kick before the scores were levelled up due to Khamis Esmaeel sending the UAE’s third penalty over the bar.
The shoot-out went to sudden-death and, after Kagawa hit the post, Ismail Ahmed scored to take the UAE into a last-four meeting with hosts Australia.
“I feel proud of this team because they gave everything in these 120 minutes,” said Aguirre. “We played in every aspect better than our opponent.
“At the end, we went to penalties and that’s a 50 per cent probability of success. We showed a lack of care at the start of the game and that’s why we conceded a goal and we had to fight to score because of that until the last minute.
“They won, but I think we played good football and tried to score more than them. At the end, we lost with one goal difference but I think we have to keep fighting like we showed today.”
Aguirre picked the same starting line-up for the fourth game in a row and the former Mexico and Espanyol coach refused to use fatigue as a reason for his team’s defeat.
“I will not make excuses, the players were well prepared,” he said. “I will not talk about luck. In this game we deserved to win and we showed we can fight, so I want the players to keep their heads up and continue.”