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Japan held by Uzbekistan

by Andrew Mckirdy

SAITAMA — Japan complicated its bid for a place at the 2010 World Cup with a 1-1 draw against Group A struggler Uzbekistan on Wednesday night.

Uzbekistan, which started the campaign with two defeats to Qatar and Australia, took the lead in the 27th minute at Saitama Stadium through captain Maksim Shatskikh, playing a physical, aggressive game that had Japan on the rack early on.

But Shunsuke Nakamura dragged his teammates back into it as he tipped the balance of play in Japan’s favor, and after the home side had wasted several of the Celtic playmaker’s promptings, Keiji Tamada pounced for the equalizer.

Uzbekistan threatened to snatch a winner throughout an open second half, despite Japan’s superior possession, but neither side could apply the decisive touch on a night when group rival Australia thumped Qatar 4-0 to jump to the top of the standings.

Japan would have kept pace with the Australians with a win, but manager Takeshi Okada insisted there was no need to panic just yet.

“We wanted to get another goal, but there’s a long way to go in the qualifiers,” he said. “We just have to look ahead and do our best.

“It’s a disappointing result, but the players did well to get a goal, and I don’t think there’s any problem yet.”

Tamada was less philosophical at dropping two points.

“It was our first home game and the result is disappointing,” he said. “We were under a lot of pressure from our opponents and we let them come at us.”

Uzbekistan seized the early initiative, with burly Dynamo Kyiv striker Shatskikh making his presence felt and Vitaliy Denisov looking dangerous striding forward from defense.

It took Japan almost 20 minutes to respond, but even when Makoto Hasebe and Yasuhito Endo had got to grips with the midfield traffic, a solid Uzbek back line marshaled by Asror Alikulov refused to yield.

Japan center-backs Yuji Nakazawa and Tulio had looked shaky under pressure from the start, and after 27 minutes they were brutally exposed. A superb ball forward released Timur Kapadze down the right, and as Tulio waved a limp appeal for offside with his man surging past him, Kapadze crossed for Shatskikh to duly knock the ball past Seigo Narazaki for the opener.

Nakamura grabbed hold of the game in search of an equalizer, but Yoshito Okubo narrowly failed to connect with a cross shortly before Shinji Kagawa froze after another precision Nakamura pass, allowing the Uzbeks to snuff out the danger.

Atsuto Uchida had an even better chance to draw level when Nakamura released him into the box, but with the goal opening up, the right-back inexplicably looked for one more pass that Kagawa could not reach.

But in the 40th minute Japan’s determination paid off. Nakamura hit another long ball to Okubo at the back post, and the striker touched it back to the waiting Tamada to bundle into the net.

Tamada went close shortly after the restart from a dangerous Uchida cross, but the half-time break had allowed Uzbekistan to steady the ship just when Japan’s momentum was at its strongest.

A back-heel from Shatskikh gave Server Djeparov a sight of goal in the 65th minute, before substitute Shinji Okazaki missed a glorious opportunity at the other end with a header that bounced off the onrushing Nakazawa to roll wide of the target.

Uzbek goalkeeper Ignatiy Nesterov pulled off a fantastic diving save to deny Nakamura from long range, but the visitors refused to sit back.

With the winning goal there for the taking, Tulio launched himself at a header that failed to find a way through, before Denisov set Japanese hearts fluttering with a break forward deep into injury time.

Nakamura hit one final effort in injury time, but there was no way to claim three points that would have put a very different complexion on qualifying Group A.