Al-Ain (United Arab Emirates) (AFP) – Tsukasa Shiotani thumped home a sizzling second-half winner as Japan changed 10 players but still beat Uzbekistan 2-1 to finish top of their group at the Asian Cup on Thursday.
The unfamiliar line-up briefly trailed after Eldor Shomurodov scored for the Uzbeks, but Newcastle United forward Yoshinori Muto’s header and Shiotani’s thunderbolt gave Japan their third win in Group F.
In the round of 16 Japan, the most successful team in Asian Cup history, will take on either Qatar or three-time winners Saudi Arabia, who play later in Group E.
Japan had smashed a total of 12 goals past Uzbekistan in their previous two Asian Cup encounters and with only one loss in their last 30 games in the tournament, excluding penalty shoot-outs, confidence was high.
Only Shimizu S-Pulse striker Koya Kitagawa survived from the team that beat Oman but the Blue Samurai still looked sharp with Junya Ito swinging in dangerous crosses from the right.
As Uzbekistan’s fans drummed along samba-style, Shomurodov scooped a decent chance over and Japan’s Takashi Inui worked veteran goalkeeper Ignatiy Nesterov with a powerful volley.
Nesterov also tipped over Kitagawa’s turn and shot before Shomurodov opened the scoring with a fine piece of work, nudging the ball between two defenders and stabbing home for his fourth goal of the tournament.
But the Uzbek lead lasted only three minutes before defender Sei Muroya’s cross from the byline was met by a solid header from Newcastle’s Muto, arriving at the back post.
A spell of Japanese pressure early in the second half resulted in a thunderous goal from Shiotani, who plays his club football with Al Ain and unfurled a rippling strike just before the hour-mark.
It knocked the stuffing out of Uzbekistan and when they finally started to press forward again in the final 15 minutes, Japan nearly caught them on the break when Kitagawa blazed over.
With four minutes to go, Davronbek Khashimov caught a shot flush from outside the area and the ball was rocketing towards the top corner before the diving Daniel Schmidt gloved it away.
However, there was to be no late equaliser for the Uzbeks, who will now face defending champions Australia in the last 16.
Elsewhere, Muhsen Al Ghassani and Mohammed Al-Musallami fired late goals as Oman beat Turkmenistan 3-1 in Abu Dhabi to progress in third place from the same group.