DOHA – Shinji Okazaki bagged the tournament’s second hat trick and Ryoichi Maeda added a double as Japan annihilated Saudi Arabia 5-0 to reach the Asian Cup quarterfinals on Monday.
Man of the match Okazaki struck twice in the first half before capping his third hat trick for Japan after halftime as Alberto Zaccheroni’s side reached the second round as Group B winner.
Maeda scored in each half.
“I managed to get behind their defense as I had hoped,” said Okazaki, who now has 21 goals in 36 international appearances. “It was my first start here and I was determined to make the most of it. I was confident.”
Japan, which is chasing a record fourth championship, will face Group A runnerup and host Qatar in Friday’s quarterfinal.
Joining Japan in the last eight from Group B is Jordan, which defeated Syria 2-1 and will meet Group A winner Uzbekistan also on Friday.
“The quality at this competition is high, and it has not been easy,” Zaccheroni said. “Our next opponents are improving every time they step out on the pitch and it will be a tough test for us.
“We’ll be at a disadvantage because they will have the entire crowd behind them. But it’s 11 versus 11 on the pitch, and that’s where the battle takes place. We should be even better in our next match.”
Japan settled a score from the 2007 Asian Cup, where it was eliminated by the Saudis in the semifinals 3-2. Japan also lost the third-place match to South Korea on penalties.
Three-time champion Saudi Arabia was sent home with three consecutive defeats and just one goal in its worst performance ever at the Asian Cup.
Nasser Al Johar’s side had only pride to play for, but it wasn’t enough to motivate the players. After Okazaki put Japan up by two in the 13th minute, they were as good as done.
“Let’s just say they weren’t as motivated as we expected them to be,” defender Atsuto Uchida said. “I was shocked at the amount of space they were giving me.”
Three changes were made to the Japanese lineup with goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima suspended and midfielders Keisuke Honda and Daisuke Matsui nursing injuries.
Shusaku Nishikawa, who came on in Thursday’s win over Syria after Kawashima was red-carded, stayed in goal while Urawa Reds’ Yosuke Kashiwagi and Okazaki filled in for Honda and Matsui.
It didn’t take long for Japan to move in front as Okazaki scored his first of the match in the eighth minute.
“I found space and scored my first goal, and that was exactly what I wanted to do” Okazaki said.
“I’ve been in good shape and I knew I could play well. It’s disappointing that Matsui-san has to leave the team with an injury, but we have to move on and keep striving for the title.”