Doha – Japan slumped to a shock 1-0 defeat against Oman in the opening game of the 2022 World Cup final Asian qualifying round on Thursday.
Issam Al Sabhi scored the 88th-minute winner four minutes after coming off the bench as Hajime Moriyasu's men remained disjointed and second-best throughout the Group B game at a rainy Panasonic Stadium in Suita.
Japan, currently 24th in the FIFA rankings, has reached the last six World Cup finals since their debut in 1998.
"They dominated the game, they've prepared well. It was a difficult game," said Moriyasu. "It turned out to be a really frustrating defeat. We'll make our best preparation to get three points in the next game."
The Samurai Blue were without the new Arsenal signing Takehiro Tomiyasu as he completed the transfer and Liverpool's Takumi Minamino remained on the bench following a left thigh complaint.
But Japan looked sluggish regardless after the majority of the players flew back from Europe, getting played off the park by the 79th-ranked opponents who have had a month-long training camp to prepare for the game.
"It wasn't good at all. We need to raise our intensity more than anything, with no holding back," said captain Maya Yoshida.
Japan opened its final qualifying campaign with a home defeat for the second straight time after losing 2-1 to the United Arab Emirates in September 2016 en route to qualifying for the 2018 World Cup.
Rabia Al Mandhar's close-range effort and another from Harib Al-saadi from distance forced two corners in the first 15 minutes as Japan made a slow start against a solid Oman midfield.
The hosts finally tested the goal in the 28th minute when Yoshida's long ball into the box found Junya Ito, who controlled well but could only shoot straight at keeper Faiz Al-rushaidi from point-blank range.
Japan failed to break down the visiting defense with lone forward Yuya Osako and attacking midfielder Daichi Kamada under constant pressure, while Oman ended the half strongly as Al Mandhar forced another corner with a shot from inside the box.
Japan, who brought on the on-form Kyogo Furuhashi to replace an anonymous Genki Haraguchi in the left attacking midfield at halftime, had Ito's header saved and Wataru Endo's close-range effort deflected before they survived a penalty scare in the 51st minute.
Abdullah Fawaz beat Hiroki Sakai down the left and sent in a cross that took a touch before hitting the left arm of Yuto Nagatomo. The referee pointed to the spot but overturned the decision after a VAR check when the arm was judged to not have been outstretched from the body.
Oman continued to push, Ali Al-busaidi this time beating Sakai only to see his powerful effort denied by the head of keeper Shuichi Gonda from a tight angle on the hour mark.
Osako's low drive from the edge of the box forced a diving save from Al-rushadi five minutes later as Japan introduced Ritsu Doan and Takefusa Kubo to provide spark to the attack, but Salah Al-yahyai, who has been a danger throughout, deservedly set up the winner.
Good combination play breached the left side of the Japanese defense before Al-yahyai's cross was met on a volley by Al Sabhi, with the ball bouncing into the far corner.
"They sat back and we couldn't break them down from the first half," said veteran Nagatomo. "We couldn't adjust in the second half either and it was a defeat that shouldn't have happened."
The defeat means Japan's head-to-head record against 79th-ranked Oman fell to 9-1 with three draws.
Saudi Arabia, Australia, China and Vietnam are also in Group B, with top two teams after a six-team round-robin earning automatic qualifications for the World Cup in Qatar.
Later on Thursday, Australia convincingly beat China 3-0 in Doha.
COVID-19 restrictions made it impossible for Australia to play their opening match in Sydney, but they still started their Group B campaign in style at Khalifa International Stadium, one of the venues for next year's World Cup in Qatar.
Kenya-born Awer Mabil put Australia ahead in the 24th minute. China goalkeeper Yan Junling foiled his first effort but Adam Taggart retrieved the ball and set up Mabil for a second chance.
The Chinese hardly had time to recover as Martin Boyle struck two minutes later with an immaculate shot from 20 yards after latching onto a pass from Tom Rogic.
China struggled to get a decent shot on goal while the Aussies wasted chances galore with Mabil, Boyle and Taggart among those missing out.
A third goal looked inevitable and it came in the 70th minute with Mitch Duke making no mistake with an easy poke after Yan parried the ball in his direction while stopping another Mabil effort.
Japan headed straight for Doha late Thursday night ahead of its match against China on Tuesday.
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