Japan's hopes of exacting revenge on the United Arab Emirates for last year's Asian Cup quarterfinal loss were shattered on Thursday evening, as they crashed to a 2-1 defeat in their Group B opener in the final round of qualifiers for the 2018 World Cup, played out before a packed stadium crowd of 65,000.
UAE manager, Mahdi Ali, was delighted with the win, saying that he was happy that the team did exactly what was asked of them. "We knew the Japanese team would press us. The team has shown that they have personality and I am very happy for us."
"The game was not only against Japan, it was also against the travelling and the jetlag. I am happy that we passed this."
With the memory of Japan’s defeat by the UAE after a 5-4 penalty shoot-out in the last eight of the Asian Cup in Australia last year still fresh, Keisuke Honda quickly made amends, opening the scoring with an 11th-minute header on a Hiroshi Kiyotake free-kick during a hot and humid night at the Saitama Stadium.
The UAE equalised just nine minutes later when Ahmed Khalil, the Asian player of the year, netted past Japan's goalkeeper, Shusaku Nishikawa, who could only manage to tip Khalil's free kick into the top corner.
Ex-Manchester United player Kagawa had a chance to give Japan the lead in the 26th minute, but shot wide from a rebound after UAE goalkeeper Khalid Eisa saved Honda's header.
Eisa also tipped a long-range effort from Ryota Oshima over the bar shortly after the second half kicked off.
Khalil became the hero of the day when he scored from the penalty spot in the 54th minute after Ismail Al Hammadi was judged to have been brought down in the area.
Japan stepped up the pressure and went close to levelling when Shinji Okazaki's header hit the bar, while the UAE's Eisa pulled off another wonderful save to deny Japan in the 77th minute, giving a score of 2-1 at the final whistle.
"It's a terrible, terrible result and I don't know why this has happened," said Japan’s fuming coach, Vahid Halilhodzic. "We made lots of chances but conceded from a free kick and a penalty and these were two goals that could have been easily prevented." In a show of frustration at the way the match went, Halilhodzic complained, "It is difficult to accept how the referee ran the game but we still have nine matches and it is not over yet. We have to analyze this game and keep working." Under the current Asian qualifying format for the World Cup, no team that has lost their opening game in the final round has then made it to the World Cup finals.
In 16 meetings with the UAE, Japan have five wins, eight draws and three defeats.
In one of the other two matches played on Wednesday evening, Australia were too good for Iraq, with Massimo Luongo and Tomi Juric netting to give the home team a 2-0 win, while in the final match of the night, South Korea held off a late China rally to take a 3-2 win.
The UAE will now face Asian champions Australia in Abu Dhabi next Tuesday at the Al Jazira Mohamed bin Zayed Stadium, kicking off at 7.30 p.m..
Japan are due to travel to Bangkok for their next Group B match against Thailand.
Meanwhile, South Korea’s next match against Syria has been moved from Macau to Malaysia, the Asian Football Confederation told Agence France-Presse on Thursday.
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