Like it or loathe it, VAR has arrived at the Asian Cup.
Introduced on Thursday – for the first time in competition history, it will be implemented from the quarter-finals onwards – the contentious Video Assistant Referee (VAR) review system went some way to settling the last-eight encounter between Japan and Vietnam.
Initially, it helped rule out Japan’s opener in Dubai. On second use, it convinced Mohammed Abdulla Hassan, the Emirati referee, to award the four-time champions a penalty, which Ritsu Doan won and converted at Al Maktoum Stadium. It decided the match.
Japan triumphed 1-0, still not convincing but all the same moving into the semi-finals, while Vietnam’s rousing run came to an end. Now in play, VAR will garner a large slice of the headlines, especially since the time between the purported foul and the subsequent penalty was clocked at around three-and-a-half minutes.
Most probably, it will not be the last time VAR impacts the tournament.
“I think this decision is correct and I hope VAR will get better in future,” Vietnam manager Park Hang-seo said, suggesting the implementation of the system needs refining. “If it started earlier in the group stages the referees’ decision would be better.”
On 25 minutes, Hassan had his first major call to make. Maya Yoshida thought he had given his side the lead with a header from Gaku Shibasaki’s corner, only for replays to show the ball had brushed the Japan captain’s arm on its way past Dang Van Lam in the Vietnam goal.
Having originally celebrated, Yoshida soon joked with Hassan about the decision.
At first a hindrance for Hajime Moriyasu’s side, it then became a help. Not long into the second half, Japan forward Doan staggered a fall inside the Vietnam area, but his pleas for a penalty were quickly waved away. Two minutes later, though, Hassan consulted VAR and pointed to the spot, persuaded Doan had indeed been caught by the boot of Vietnamese defender Bui Tien Dung.
Via various replays, it seemed harsh.
Doan scored, what felt an eternity after the alleged infringement took place, and Japan had finally broken through. Having cracked the Vietnamese resistance, who had Van Dam to thank for another stellar showing overall, they plough on. A fifth continental crown sits two matches from reach.
“It was very important that we won and go to the next round,” said Moriyasu, whose side were fortunate not to concede in the first half following a mix-up between Yoshida and goalkeeper Shuichi Gonda.
“It was good that our players kept a clean sheet and got the place in the next round. As a team we earned another experience that helps our development. Hopefully it will be the same in the next challenge.”
Certainly, Vietnam had presented a stern test. Seeking a first ever semi-final appearance, ultimately they succumbed to Japan’s superior fitness, the result of last month’s draining AFF Championship title success and a series of testing matches in the UAE.
"For our Vietnam team, getting to the quarter-final was also dramatic,” Park said. “Honestly, we hadn’t have enough time to prepare this competition right after the AFF Championship, but my players did their best.
“Even though we lost today, we played very well and put our bodies on the line. I’m really satisfied with that.”
Where Vietnam can now finally rest, Japan have either China or Iran to meet in the last four in Al Ain on Monday. The prospective opponents played each other late on Thursday.
“Today we will know which team we’re facing, so our approach will be basically the same,” Moriyasu said. “But we have had many experiences so far, sometimes spending a lot of time defending, like in the second half against Saudi Arabia [in the last 16], and also the other way around.
“We have taken some good lessons from these experiences. So using this, I want to pass to the players so they can have the best performance on the pitch.”