Al-Ain (United Arab Emirates) (AFP) – Tsukasa Shiotani’s sizzling winner kept Japan on top of their Asian Cup group on Thursday, while Oman scrambled into the knockouts in a pulsating finish to the tournament’s first stage.
In Abu Dhabi, Almoez Ali took his tally to seven goals in just three games as Qatar beat political rivals Saudi Arabia 2-0, but Lebanon heartbreakingly failed to progress despite their 4-1 win over North Korea.
With the Asian Cup featuring a record 24 teams, the 36-game group stage finished with holders Australia facing a last-16 clash with Uzbekistan, while Qatar will play Iraq and Japan face the Saudis.
Shiotani’s rocket ensured Japan finished with a perfect nine points at the top of Group F as they beat Uzbekistan 2-1, despite changing 10 players from their previous game.
Eldor Shomurodov opened the scoring with a fine individual goal but the Uzbek lead lasted only three minutes before Newcastle United forward Yoshinori Muto’s header made it 1-1.
Japanese pressure early in the second half resulted in a thunderous winner from Shiotani, who plays his club football with Al Ain and unfurled a rippling strike just before the hour-mark.
“It wasn’t a risk (to change 10 players),” said Japan coach Hajime Moriyasu. “I wanted to use these players today.
“We now have some tough games waiting for us so I think it was good that I could use these players and get them match-fit.”
Oman kept their hopes alive with a last-gasp 3-1 win over Turkmenistan to go through as one of the best-performing third-placed teams, behind Japan and Uzbekistan in Group F.
The Gulf side took the lead after 20 minutes thanks to an Ahmed Al Mahaijri free-kick, before Altymyrat Annadurdyyev slammed home the equaliser shortly before half-time.
But Muhsen Al Ghassani pounced from close range with six minutes left and Mohammed Al-Musallami added a stoppage-time header to give Oman their first points of the tournament.
– Anthem boos –
Meanwhile, Qatar overcame a hostile atmosphere to beat Saudi Arabia 2-0 and finish top of Group E, setting up next week’s knockout clash with Iraq.
“I want to congratulate our players and all of Qatar — it was a great performance and we showed great team spirit and quality,” said Qatar coach Felix Sanchez Bas.
“Finishing first is good for our confidence so I’m very proud of my players. Now it gets very hard so we don’t consider ourselves favourites… It will be very tough to beat Iraq.”
With Qatar in the midst of a blockade by its Gulf neighbours, the Qatari national anthem was drowned out by boos from a pro-Saudi crowd and the 2022 World Cup hosts were jeered every time they attacked.
Qatar captain Hasan Al-Haydos missed a penalty in the 42nd minute but Ali, who plundered four goals in Qatar’s 6-0 rout of North Korea last weekend, made no mistake in first-half stoppage time.
He calmly slotted past Saudi goalkeeper Mohammed Alowais to stun the partisan crowd and become the first player to score six goals in a single Asian Cup since South Korea’s Lee Dong-gook in 2000.
Ali subsequently headed in his seventh goal of the tournament 10 minutes from time, celebrating with a jig of delight that further antagonised the crowd.
In Sharjah, Lebanon needed to beat North Korea by four clear goals to pinch a place in the knockouts as one of the best third-placed teams, and they came agonisingly close with their 4-1 win.
Pak Kwang Ryong’s early free-kick gave North Korea their first and only goal of the tournament and it proved critical as George Melki’s riposte, Hilal El-Helwe’s double and Hassan Maatouk’s late strike weren’t quite enough to get Lebanon over the line.
With Lebanon, in Group E, on identical points, goal difference and goals scored to Vietnam, in Group D, the Southeast Asian champions go through because of their superior disciplinary record.
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