AL AIN, United Arab Emirates – Defender Tsukasa Shiotani scored his first international goal for the win as Japan fought back to beat Uzbekistan 2-1 and clinch the top spot in Group F at the AFC Asian Cup on Thursday night.
Striker Yoshinori Muto netted his first Samurai Blue goal in more than three years, leveling the scores shortly after Eldor Shomurodov had given Uzbekistan the lead late in the first half at Al Ain’s Khalifa bin Zayed Stadium.
With a place in the knockout stage already guaranteed, manager Hajime Moriyasu made wholesale changes to Japan’s starting lineup, retaining only forward Koya Kitagawa from the 11 who took the field in Sunday’s 1-0 win over Oman.
Winger Takashi Inui, a breakout star of last summer’s World Cup in Russia, made his first appearance after joining the squad late as one of two injury replacements.
The other, Shiotani, also made his first start of the tournament as a defensive midfielder after being drafted in from Abu Dhabi club Al Ain, which plays its home games at the venue for the Group F clash.
By beating Uzbekistan, the other previously undefeated team in the group, Japan set up a last-16 clash with Saudi Arabia, the runners-up from Group E, in Sharjah on Monday.
“In getting this result, the players showed the overall strength that we’re aiming to play with at this tournament,” Moriyasu said.
“Looking ahead to the knockout stage, we want to continue to make the best possible preparations,” he added.
Needing only a draw to secure top place in the group on goal difference, Uzbekistan opened cautiously and did most of its early attacking on the counter.
Uzbekistan took the lead five minutes before the break thanks to an excellent run and finish by FC Rostov forward Shomurodov.
The striker received a through-ball on the right wing from teammate Fozil Musaev, a defensive midfielder for Jubilo Iwata, and stayed a step ahead of center-back Tomoaki Makino as he ran into the box.
With center-back Genta Miura sprinting across to lend support, Shomurodov split the two Japanese defenders and jabbed a shot past diving ‘keeper Daniel Schmidt.
Japan struck back three minutes later when wingback Sei Muroya beat his man on the right wing and sent a goal-line cross that Muto headed home from the six-yard box.
The Samurai Blue squandered an almost identical opportunity a minute from halftime when Kitagawa connected with a cross from Junyo Ito but sent his header wide.
Japan showed its attacking intent soon after the break, with Ito repeatedly pressuring the Uzbekistan defense with runs down the right.
It broke the deadlock 13 minutes into the half when Shiotani intercepted a clearance and found the net with his first-time shot.
With Japan mounting a secondary attack following a corner kick, Muroya sent a ball into the box that Uzbekistan defender Islom Tukhtakhujaev cleared only as far as Shiotani, 3 meters outside the area. He sent his left-footed shot into the top right corner.
Looking for an equalizer, Uzbekistan ramped up their intensity in the final 15 minutes, but the Japanese defense held firm under pressure.
Schmidt produced an outstanding save with four minutes remaining, diving in the air to his right to deny a long-range attempt from Davron Khashimov.
Kitagawa blew a chance to put Japan up 3-1 on a counterattack in the 37th minute, blasting over the bar after receiving a cross from Muto in the middle of the box.
Four-time champion Japan is aiming for an unprecedented fifth Asian Cup trophy. It is also looking for redemption following an early exit from the previous tournament in Australia, where it lost to the UAE on penalties in the quarterfinals.