Al Ain: Japan underlined the depth of talent available to coach Hajime Moriyasu on Thursday evening as the four-time champions came back from a goal behind to defeat Uzbekistan 2-1 in Al Ain and secure top spot in Group F of the AFC Asian Cup UAE 2019.
Yoshinori Muto and Tsukasa Shiotani scored for Japan after Eldor Shomurodov had given Uzbekistan the lead and Hector Cuper’s side will now face Australia in the Round of 16 while the Japanese will face the Group E runners-up, either Saudi Arabia or Qatar.
Moriyasu made 10 changes from the team that started the 1-0 win over Oman, with striker Koya Kitagawa the only player to survive the Japan coach’s decision to overhaul his line-up.
Despite that move, though, Japan retained their fluency throughout and spent much of the opening 45 minutes camped in the Uzbek half as Cuper’s team sat back, waiting to hit their opponents on the counter attack.
Junya Ito threatened early on and Takashi Inui, making his first start of the tournament, was lively, with the Real Betis man firing off a shot 19 minutes into the game that forced Ignatiy Nesterov to dive to his left.
Kitagawa forced Nesterov into further action 10 minutes before the break when his shot on the turn was tipped over by the veteran keeper.
With five minutes left in the half, Uzbekistan took the lead with a moment of magic from Shomurodov, the Rostov striker latching on to Dostonbek Khamamov’s through ball to outpace Tomoaki Makino before stepping inside Genta Miura and clipping the finest of finishes into the top corner with the outside of his right boot.
The lead, though, was to last only three minutes as Sei Muroya unlocked the Uzbek defence with a sharp turn on the left touchline before outstripping Farrukh Sayfiev and sending over an inch-perfect cross towards Muto, who rose to power his header home.
Kitagawa should have put Japan in front via an almost identical move, with Ito supplying the cross from the right, but his glancing header was off target. Buoyed by their finish to the first 45 minutes, Japan stepped up the tempo in the second period, with Ito particularly threatening down the right side as the half wore on.
Nesterov parried the Kashiwa Reysol man’s shot nine minutes after the restart while Muto went close seconds later, shooting just over the bar. Inui’s attempt from outside the area soon after suffered a similar fate.
Two minutes before the hour mark Shiotani made Japan’s pressure pay with a vicious left-foot strike from distance that rose and curled away from Nesterov as he dived desperately to his left to put Moriyasu’s team in front.
Uzbekistan pressed for a way past the Japanese defence, leaving themselves open to the counter-attack and Kitagawa should have doubled his side’s lead with eight minutes left, only to fire over the bar after Muto’s through ball.
Davronbek Khashimov forced Daniel Schmidt to tip his long-range drive over the bar in the final minutes as Japan closed out the game to take their third win in a row and advance to the next round with a perfect record.