Japan’s Shuichi Gonda, Tsukasa Shiotani and teammates celebrate after their win over Saudi Arabia on Monday. Image Credit: Reuters

Sharjah: Tomiyasu Takehiro struck the lone goal as four-time champions Japan knocked off three-time winners Saudi Arabia in an engrossing battle of heavyweights in their Round of 16 match of the 2019 AFC Asian Cup on Monday.

Champions in 1992, 2000, 2004 and 2011, Japan showed true class and pedigree while scoring a goal off the very first opportunity that came their way with Tomisyasu heading in a 20th minute corner kick.

Japan will next play Vietnam in their quarter-final at Al Nasr’s Al Maktoum Stadium on Thursday [January 24].

“Winning against a very tough opponent like Saudi Arabia and that too with a clean slate was important for us. The best part for us was to stay patient and wait for our chance. Now we have just two days to recover and prepare for the next one [against Vietnam],” Japanese coach Hajime Moriyasu told media.

“Saudi Arabia is a very strong opponent. We respect them. We wanted to have more possession, but the key was patience. We intended to create more chances. We need to build on the positives now,” he added.

The Saudi Arab plan was clear from the onset as they focused on keeping possession, moving the ball around while attempting to make their opponents impatient. Their first real opportunity came in the opening minute itself off a freekick, but Mohammad Al Fatil’s header swung wide off the goal.

Pushed into defending, the Japanese need to be lauded for their patience. While Minamino Takumi waited for the quick clearance to mount a counter upfront, rest of his colleagues fell down for defending. The Japanese got their first corner in the 20th minute and they made use of this chance as a header from defender Tomiyasu — who plays for Sint-Truidense VV in the Belgian League — found the far corner of Mohammad Al Owais’s goal.

Saudi should have got an equaliser in the 35th minute, but Hatan Bahbri’s first-time curler whizzed past the upright.

Coach Juan Antonio Pizzi — whose contract with Saudi Arabia ended with Monday’s match — was pleased with his team’s performance. “There is too much sadness inside the dressing room, but I am proud that my players represented my style of play. I take total responsibility for the result. There are several positive takeaways and we will wait till tomorrow to analyse this game. We tried till the end, but we didn’t have the chance to get a goal,” Pizzi said.

“I don’t think my players let me down. You have to remember that we were up against the best team in Asia and we played and controlled the game on our terms, but lacked a final touch for a goal,” he admitted.

The West Asians continued with their plan unaltered in the second half, but it was Japan who nearly doubled their lead on the hour after Muto Yoshinori accepted a through ball down the left, but took too long to aim at goal. Saudi Arabia nearly bagged an equaliser in the very next minute when Salem Al Dawsari got a delivery at his feet, but the Saudi skipper blasted way over with only Gonda Shuichi at his mercy.

Japan have qualified for eight successive tournaments since 1988 including this one, making them one of the contenders for the AFC Asian Cup. Their fourth and last success was in 2011 when the competition was held in Qatar. The Samurai Blues lost in the quarter-finals at the 2015 edition held in Australia.