Japan forward Keisuke Honda once again issued a damning verdict on the standard of Asia’s referees after the Samurai Blue were denied a seemingly legitimate goal in Thursday’s 2-1 World Cup-qualifying loss to the United Arab Emirates.

Honda, who accused Qatari referee Abdulrahman Hussain of officiating Japan’s opening game of the 2015 Asian Cup against Palestine “like a basketball game,” gave Japan an 11th-minute lead against the UAE before two goals from Ahmed Khalil put the visitors in front early in the second half.

The 58,895-strong Saitama Stadium crowd celebrated what it thought was an equalizer when UAE goalkeeper Khalid Eisa was late to claw away a 77th-minute shot from Japan substitute Takuma Asano, only to see Qatari referee Abdulrahman Al-Jassim wave play on after ruling that the ball had not crossed the line.

“I had a good look at it and I know it went in,” said Honda, who supplied the headed knock-down for Asano’s shot. “It wasn’t given so there’s no point in going on about it now, but in order to make sure this kind of thing doesn’t happen often and there’s no doubt, the fourth official has to be there.

“I was looking for the fourth official but all I could see were the linesmen. Of course I’m not trying to say that the result hinged only on that one incident. But when you’re playing against improved teams in the final round of the Asian qualifiers and every game is difficult, I would like to see things done at a certain level.”

TV replays clearly showed that the whole of the ball had crossed the line, but Asano preferred to focus on his own perceived shortcomings.

“I didn’t connect with the ball as I would have liked,” said the 21-year-old, who joined Premier League side Arsenal this summer before being loaned out to German outfit Stuttgart. “I thought it had gone in but I looked at the referee and he hadn’t given it.

“If I had connected with it properly and blasted it into the back of the net, he would have given the goal. I think the problem was with my technique.”

Japan could find no way to recover before the end of the 90 minutes, dealing the team’s chances of reaching a sixth-straight World Cup a significant blow in its first game of the final round of Asian qualifiers.

Two teams from a Group B that also includes Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Thailand and Asian champion Australia will qualify automatically for Russia 2018, with the third-place side going through to a playoff.

“I’m disappointed,” said Japan manager Vahid Halilhodzic. “We couldn’t show what we are really capable of and we have to accept that. I wanted the players to move the ball quicker, and our opponents were more realistic in their outlook.

“There was some fatigue. Some players weren’t in their best condition. You could ask why I picked those players in the team, but they were the best I had. That’s my responsibility as national team manager. Our opponent was better than us. They were better organized and they have some very good players. But we still have nine games left. It’s difficult but I believe we can do it.”

Japan took the lead from Honda’s header before a foul by Maya Yoshida on the edge of the Japan box allowed Khalil to equalize direct from a free kick nine minutes later.

Japan debutant Ryota Oshima then gave away a penalty in the 54th minute, which Khalil chipped over a flailing Shusaku Nishikawa to put the UAE in front.

“Things were going to plan until after we scored the first goal,” said Japan captain Makoto Hasebe, who won his 100th cap. “But then we conceded a goal from a free kick, and early in the second half I gave the ball away and that led to the penalty. Experienced players know that even small mistakes can be the difference between winning and losing.

“We wrung our own necks tonight. We scored first but then we weren’t strong enough to see the win through. More than anything the referee did, we had plenty of chances to win and it’s our responsibility that we didn’t take them.”

Japan now travels to Bangkok to face Thailand on Sept. 6, with a win over the world’s 120th-ranked side imperative for Halilhodzic’s side.

“It’s very difficult to accept because this result was the complete opposite of what we were expecting,” said Honda. “But I want to be positive and say that it’s not the end of everything. We still have nine games left, and we want to win them all.”

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