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Japan erased a six-point deficit in the fifth set for a 3-2 (20-25, 25-23, 23-25, 25-23, 15-13) come-from-behind victory over resilient Thailand in the women’s Olympic final volleyball qualifying on Wednesday.

In a thriller that lasted almost three hours, Japan was down 12-6 in the tiebreaker but roared back to take all but one of the next 10 points, the game’s top scorer Saori Sakoda pouncing on match point to send Tokyo Metropolitan Gymnasium into delirium.

Japan caught a few breaks down the stretch as Thailand was penalized with two red cards that completely turned the tide in favor of the home team.

Sakoda finished with 24 points off the bench, Yuki Ishii adding 17. Captain Thinkaow Pleumjit, who described the referees’ decisions as “unfair,” led Thailand with 21 points.

“I’ve been around volleyball for a very long time but to come back from six points down in the last set is something that maybe happens once in a lifetime,” said Japan coach Masayoshi Manabe, whose team takes on the Dominican Republic on Friday.

“It was a very difficult game and we escaped by the skin of our teeth. We knew all along Thailand was a good team. They don’t have height but they are quick and combine really well.

“This was an especially big game for Thailand so I was expecting it to be tough. The plan was that if we struggled, I was going to play our (London Olympic) medalists from the third set on.

“Their experience was going to count. There is a lot of pressure on us at this competition and we lost to South Korea last night. We could not afford to lose this game.”

Thailand coach Radchatagriengkai K was furious over the red cards, saying he doesn’t even know why he received them. The official explanation was for bringing the game into disrepute and delay of game.

“This is a first for me, and I’ve been in this game for 20 years,” he said. “I have no idea what the referee was thinking. I wasn’t rude to him at all; I just asked him questions about the tablets we use for the substitutions.

“It’s incredibly unfair. I ask the referee questions and we get penalized. But the match is over now and all we can do is accept it. I’ve been pointing out the problem since the first day and it still hasn’t been corrected.”

Behind outstanding defending, Thailand, the only team at the tournament which has never appeared at the Olympics, certainly appeared headed for its second victory against a rattled Japanese team.

Manabe held out captain Saori Kimura in the first set as a precaution, after she injured her right little finger a day earlier in the loss to Korea.

Japan clearly had not shaken off the defeat, as the hosts quickly went down 5-1 and needing to burn their first timeout. Japan briefly led 16-15, but Thailand won the next two points to recapture the lead which the visitors held on to.

On the second set point at 24-20, Haruyo Shimamura served long as the Thais went up 1-0. Shimamura’s missed serve was one of nine errors Japan committed in the first set alone.

Manabe had no choice but to bring on Kimura, who could not provide the side a massive lift with just two points in the second set, during which Japan and Thailand traded point for point.

Japan looked doomed once Thailand took a 23-22 lead, but Sakoda pulled the home team level before Ishii’s spike was blocked out for set point.

Moksri Chatchu-On spiked wide and after an unsuccessful Thailand challenge, Japan won the set.

The third set was as closely contested as the first two, but the Thais were first to set point at 24-21. Japan denied them twice, yet the third time was the charm for Thailand, Nuekjang Thatdao finishing the job to invite a fourth set, which Sakoda closed out ahead of the tiebreaker.

Earlier, Italy remained the only unbeaten team with a straight-sets victory over Peru.

The Azzurri kept their hold on first place after winning 25-19, 25-16, 25-17 to stay perfect through four matches in the eight-team, round-robin competition.

A night after its resounding win against Japan, South Korea had little trouble defeating Kazakhstan 3-0 (25-16, 25-11, 25-21), while the Netherlands also won in straight sets, beating the Dominican Republic 25-22, 25-18, 25-21.

The highest finisher from Asia qualifies automatically for Rio de Janeiro along with the top three teams overall.

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