Saitama (Japan) (AFP) – Japan slammed an “unacceptable” refereeing howler as they crashed 2-1 to the United Arab Emirates in a woeful start to their World Cup qualifying final round on Thursday.

AC Milan’s Keisuke Honda nodded the hosts in front in Saitama but UAE grabbed all the points after Ahmed Khalil’s sumptuous free kick and penalty either side of half-time.

Japan should have finished the game at 2-2 but the officials failed to spot that Takuma Asano’s shot, clawed away by Khalid Eisa, had crossed the line, as shown by TV replays.

Qatari referee Abdulrahman Al Jassim waved away Japan’s protests as the Blue Samurai slumped once again to UAE, their conquerors in last year’s Asian Cup quarter-finals.

“The referee was unacceptable,” fumed Japan coach Vahid Halilhodzic, when asked about the Asano ghost goal. He added that 2-1 was a “horrible result”.

“They had many chances, and they two lost goals after a free kick and a penalty kick that could have been avoided,” glowered the Bosnian.

Japan made the perfect start when Honda, capitalising on some slack defending, leapt unmarked to head in a free-kick at the far post on 11 minutes.

Shinji Okazaki fired one just wide but the UAE got their chance to draw level when Southampton defender Maya Yoshida brought down Ali Mabkhout just outside the box.

Khalil stepped up and his dipping free kick went in off the underside of the crossbar via the gloves of goalkeeper Shusaku Nishikawa, who will feel he could have done better.

Borussia Dortmund’s Shinji Kagawa had a golden chance to restore Japan’s lead but with the goalmouth begging, he bundled a rebound from a Honda header wide.

At the other end, Mabkhout almost put UAE in front but this time Nishikawa was equal to his first-time shot from close range.

Japan came out firing at the start of the second half and Ryota Oshima’s fierce shot drew a fingertip save from UAE ‘keeper Eisa.

But when Abdelaziz Sanqour was tripped in the box, Khalil was again the go-to man and he produced an exquisite chipped penalty down the centre as Nishikawa dived to his right.

The goal triggered some frenzied action from Japan and they were desperately unlucky when Okazaki’s header cannoned off the bar just before the hour-mark.

Things got worse for the hosts with Asano’s goal that wasn’t and captain Makoto Hasebe remonstrated with the referee at the final whistle, while UAE players knelt and raised their arms in grateful prayer.

“We had a decent start, but it does not mean anything if we lost the game after 90 minutes,” said Honda. “We still have more games to play. We will just have to do them right.”