AFC U23 Championships

Kokubo Heroics Seal Japan’s Second AFC U-23 Title

A heroic performance from goalkeeper Leo Kokubo helped Japan U-23 to clinch their second AFC U-23 Asian Cup title after the young Samurai Blue had edged out Uzbekistan U-23 1-0 in Friday night’s final at the Jassim bin Hamad Stadium. Kokubo had saved a last-minute penalty from Umarali Rakhmonaliev after substitute Fuki Yamada had given Japan the lead early into injury time to ensure that Japan would clinch this year’s title under dramatic circumstances.

Japan faced an early scare in the eighth minute when a moment of hesitation between Hiroki Sekine and Kota Takai allowed Alisher Odilov to set up Husain Norchaev behind the defense. However, Norchaev’s shot went wide, sparing Japan from conceding an early goal.

Throughout the opening quarter, it was Uzbekistan who dominated, with captain Jasurbek Jaloliddinov attempting a long-range shot in the 13th minute, which was comfortably collected by Kokubo. Timur Kapadze’s team controlled the midfield, dictating the pace of the game.

Uzbekistan’s energetic start forced Japan to adopt a more patient approach, focusing on possession and occasional pressure deep in the opponent’s half. Despite this, Japan struggled to create clear chances, with Kein Sato missing an opportunity after a misplaced pass from Uzbekistan’s Ibrokhimkhalil Yuldoshev.

In a rare threat from Japan, Uzbekistan’s Jaloliddinov hit the crossbar with a cross just before halftime. The second half saw few clear chances for either side, with Joel Fujita and Ruslanbek Jiyanov testing the goalkeepers.

Japan introduced Yamada and Sota Kawasaki in an attempt to break the deadlock, with Yamada coming close with a header over the bar. With time running out, Seiji Kimura’s header almost found the back of the net before Yamada finally scored from the edge of the area, putting Japan in the lead.

In the dying moments, Uzbekistan was awarded a penalty after Sekine’s handball, but Kokubo saved Rakhmonaliev’s spot-kick, securing the title for Japan after a lengthy injury time.