Seiichiro Maki scored twice as defending champions Japan recovered from a goal deficit to beat spirited cohost Vietnam 4-1, the victory sending Ivica Osim’s men into the quarterfinals of the Asian Cup finals as winners of Group B.

After Keita Suzuki had sliced into his own net on seven minutes to send shockwaves through My Dinh Stadium on Monday evening, under-fire forward Maki chested in the equalizer five minutes later after a delicious piece of trickery from Shunsuke Nakamura on the left had set up the chance.

Yasuhito Endo showed Nakamura-like mastery from a dead-ball situation just after the half-hour mark, with his free-kick from the left side of the area flying past ‘keeper Duong Hong Son to put Japan ahead.

Endo and Nakamura — creators supreme throughout for Japan — combined to devastating effect on 53 minutes for the third, Endo flicking Yuichi Komano’s pass into the path of the Celtic playmaker who used his right foot — usually used solely for standing on — to side-foot the ball into the top corner.

And on 59 minutes, Endo curled in a free-kick from the left to the far post for JEF United Chiba striker Maki to head home from whites-of-the-eyes range for his second of the game.

But with Vietnam losing 4-1, a crowd that would normally have been silenced was whipped into a frenzied state as news filtered through that the United Arab Emirates had equalized against Qatar, and then that the game had finished 2-1 for the UAE. That meant Vietnam took the runnerup spot in Group B and will play the winner of Group A in the Bangkok quarterfinal.

Cue wild celebrations for both sets of supporters.

Japan now plays the runnerup of Group A in Hanoi on Saturday evening. The final games of that group were scheduled to be played later Monday, with Iraq, Thailand, Australia and Oman all still in with a chance of either of the top two spots.

“I got a nice passes,” Maki said of his goals. “But we gave up the first goal because of our carelessness, and it was good that we equalized soon.”

Shunsuke Nakamura said Japan was slowly gelling but still needed to improve up front.

“We’re gradually making progress in our plays as a team,” Nakamura said. “It will be better when we can take care of the remaining one-third of the game which is scoring.

“It wasn’t acceptable that we gave up the first goal. But it was OK, because after all that we tied the game so quickly.”

Japan coach Osim had decided against making any changes to his starting XI against Vietnam, sticking with the forward pairing of Naohiro Takahara and Maki a sweet and sour combination for the coach up until Monday. Takahara had already scored three goals in the tournament, whereas Maki looked a far from menacing presence in the first match he started against the UAE.

But on Monday it was Takahara who looked a little out-of-sorts, perhaps hindered by the illness he had been carrying. Maki, with two goals, now has confidence coursing through his veins but he had the brilliant supporting cast of Nakamura and Endo to thank for Monday’s double.

It had all started so differently, though. The Vietnamese fans just off work were still filing into the stadium when the home team took the lead, but the fans present nearly lifted the ground’s two roofs when the unfortunate Suzuki shanked into his own net from Phan Van Tai Em’s left-sided corner.

The game had started in pell-mell fashion, the will of the crowd giving the Vietnamese an inspirational boost. No. 9 Le Cong Vinh, in particular, was full of beans and giving the flustered Yuji Nakazawa and Yuki Abe problems with his boundless energy.

Vietnam had, if soccer cliches run true, scored too early. The goal did indeed look like an aberration after Japan drew level five minutes after the opener. Nakamura provided the requisite invention, collecting the ball on the left, bamboozling Nguyen Huy Hoang and dropping in a deep cross that Maki gladly chested across the line from close range.

Japan was now in the ascendancy, but the sheer intensity of the Vietnamese both crowd and players meant there was to be no resting on laurels. Midfielder Nguyen Vu Phong nearly restored the home team’s advantage when he lashed in a swerving shot across Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi but just wide, before Vietnam had a touch-and-go penalty shout turned down.

It was to Vietnam’s credit that it needed another touch of class to put Japan ahead and this time it was provided by Gamba Osaka midfielder Endo with his free-kick.

The match now slowed down a notch it had to, the heat couldn’t allow the game to continue in such a high tempo and Japan passed languidly but with accuracy. Intermittently, though, Vietnam would break and Japan’s rear guard looked far from fail safe, with Akira Kaji and Komano both giving balls away cheaply.

It wasn’t until the second half that Japan stepped up the level and showed their dominance. First through Nakamura, then Maki again. But even as Japan led 4-1, the Vietnamese fans were in the mood for celebration, all thanks to the UAE.


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