Dubai: Japan fought back to defeat Uzbekistan 2-1 at Khalifa Bin Zayed Stadium in Al Ain on Thursday evening.
The Samurai Blue had already qualified for the round of 16 thanks to slender wins over Turkmenistan and Oman, but were eager to ensure top spot in Group F against the former Soviet nation in the Garden City.
The opening exchanges were fairly even before Tomoaki Makino should have put Japan ahead after 16 minutes but the defender could only fire over after getting his foot on the end of a crossed free-kick.
Minutes later Uzbek goalkeeper Ignatiy Nesterov did brilliantly to save a powerful shot from Takeshi Inui from outside the area as Hajime Moriyasu’s men began to show the form that had Belgium on the ropes in the World Cup in Russia last summer before losing 3-2.
The match burst into life in the final five minutes of the first half with Uzbekistan’s Eldor Shomurodov stunning the dominant Japan players with a mazy run into the area and an excellent finish with the outside of his boot that gave goalkeeper Daniel Schmidt no chance.
Japan were clearly irked by this setback and were on level terms once more in a matter of minutes.
A cross was whipped in from the left and Yoshinori Muto rose to power a header into the back of the net past Nesterov to ensure they were on level footing at the break.
Despite the late setback in the first half, Uzbekistan started the second period the brighter, firing in teasing crosses and shooting from distance, testing the resilience of the Japanese defence.
Japan sprang a quick counter-attack on 54 minutes and Tomoaki Makino stung the palms of Nesterov before the Uzbek defence cleared the danger.
Japan were beginning to create the pressure again as the hour mark approached with Muto and then Inui firing just over the bar.
The Uzbekistan rearguard was finally broken on 58 minutes and it took a cracker of a finish to allow Japan to take the lead for the first time.
The ball broke to Tsukasa Shiotani all of 25 yards out and he unleashed a piledriver that left Nesterov with no chance in the Uzbek goal.
Again Uzbekistan came in search of the goal that would take them back to the top of Group F, but they found Schmidt in inspired from between the sticks as he thwarted every attempt that came his way.
In Group F’s other match on Thursday evening, Oman defeated Turkmenistan to all but make it into the last 16 as one of the best third-place finishers ahead of the final matches in Group E.
Ahmad Kano gave Pim Verbeek’s side the lead before Altymurad Annadurdiyev levelled for Turkmenistan just before the end of the first half.
It looked like both sides would be heading home with only one point to their name, but Muhsen Al Ghassani struck with six minutes remaining to delight the Omani fans in the crowd. They were not done yet as Mohammad Al Musalami put the icing on the cake with Oman’s third in the 93rd minute.