CHONGQING, China – Japan survived a second-half onslaught to squeeze past Oman 1-0 and get its Asian Cup defense off to a winning start in an opening Group D clash on Tuesday evening.
Zico’s men were totally outplayed in stifling heat at Olympic Sports Center but had Italian-based midfielder Shunsuke Nakamura to thank after his sublime finish settled the match in the 34th minute.
“It was a tough match but our players defended well,” Zico said after the match. “Maybe we played too deep but we had to defend to protect our lead. We took our chance. We had to use those tactics to get the result.”
A near full-strength Japan scraped past the Omanis 1-0 in February in their opening Asian zone qualifier for the 2006 World Cup, a result that prompted calls for Zico to step down as coach.
Just as in that game, the Japanese were frustrated as Oman packed the midfield and defended staunchly while trying to create chances on the counterattack in a tight opening period.
Milan Macala’s side had the better chances early on, with Yousuf Shaban forcing Japan goalkeeper Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi into a smart save with a header in the 16th minute, and Imad Ali firing just over after a slick move on the half-hour.
But Nakamura settled the champions when he burst into the penalty area and picked his spot with delightful flick that gave Ali Al Habsi no chance in the Oman goal.
It was Japan’s turn to defend after the break as it clung desperately to its lead in the face of wave after wave of Omani pressure.
Defender Makoto Tanaka made a last-ditch tackle to thwart Bader Mubarak in the 53rd minute, while Kawaguchi had to be quick off his line to clear the danger as striker Mubarak threatened again in the 68th minute.
One sensed that it was going to be Japan’s day and not Mubarak’s as he blazed over from a decent position before several more chances went begging, as the champions held out for three precious points.
Meanwhile, in late action on Monday, former champion Kuwait scored three goals in the first half and beat United Arab Emirates 3-1.
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