Japan and Uzbekistan put on a show for the final Asian Cup game in Group F – three fine goals punctuating a game full of zest.
Both Hector Cuper and Hajime Moriyasu made changes to their starting XIs, with both sides guaranteeing qualification to the knockout rounds with two wins from their opening two games.
But it didn’t make for a disjointed game as there was attacking intent shown from the opening whistle.
Eldor Shomurodov slalomed through the Japan defence to open the scoring for the White Wolves, before Newcastle United forward Yoshinori Muto nodded his side level before the interval.
Tsukasa Shiotani – who plays for UAE giants Al Ain – would have been feeling right at home in the Garden City and won it for Japan with a rifled effort after the break.
Here, we look at some talking points.
SO MUCH FOR A MEANINGLESS GAME
For a game considered a dead rubber, this was a thoroughly entertaining affair, with the spectacle right up there with any of the best encounters the tournament has had to offer thus far.
Japan’s 3-2 win over Turkmenistan was engrossing, while Iraq’s stoppage time win over Vietnam in their opener by the same scoreline was equally as engaging. And this encounter was no different, with the game open from the first whistle and both teams intent on attacking.
Perhaps spurred by the desire to earn top spot and thereby avoid a likely harder round-of-16 tie, or maybe each side’s second string were keen to make the most of a rare start. Whatever the reason, this game delivered from the opening minutes.
Eldor Shomurodov set the tone with a sublime opening goal that – much like the game itself – is up there with the finest strikes seen at the tournament so far.
Slicing his way through the Blue Samurai defence, the 23-year-old FC Rostov talent showed mesmerising close control amid a field of blue shirts to create the space for a shot, and when the crucial moment arrived he provided a deft flick over United States-born Japan keeper Daniel Schmidt.
Japan’s response was immediate, Newcastle United attacking midfielder Yoshinori Muto rising excellently to plant a firm header past Ignatiy Nesterov, while the best was saved until last.
Al Ain defender Tsukasa Shiotani blasted home the winner from 18 yards after Uzbekistan failed to clear.
TSUKASA MAKES HIMSELF AT HOME
What a moment it was for Shiotani – scoring a goal in front of his home fans of Al Ain. Well, almost. The game was being played at Khalifa bin Zayed Stadium – the Boss’ former stadium before relocating a few kilometres down the road to the beautiful Hazza bin Zayed Stadium in 2014.
Al Ain’s new home may be beautiful, but Shiotani’s strike to give Japan the lead was equally as stunning – the versatile defender launching a rocket which nestled in the top corner and gave Nesterov no chance whatsoever.
It was just the 30-year-old’s third cap for his country – having earned his first two way back in 2014. But selectors must have been keeping close tabs on the left-back, who has flourished since arriving in the Garden City from Sanfrecce Hiroshima in his homeland in 2017.
The all-action man was an intrinsic part of the Boss’ Arabian Gulf League title success last season – playing 18 league games for Zoran Mamic’s champions and contributing three goals to the cause.
His all-round ability and knack for crucial tackles as well as affecting the attack are all impressive attributes to Shiotani’s game. And if he has finally caught the attention of national team boss Moriyasu as a late call-up thanks to some key injuries, how long will it be before other clubs come calling for his services?
For now he will just be focused on prying the door open further to the Japan starting XI for the crucial games that lie ahead as the Asian Cup enters the knockout phase.
SECOND STRING GO OUT ON A LIMB
Speaking of fringe players, it was a night on which they certainly stuck their hands up for inclusion in the knockout rounds should coaches be looking to freshen up their squads.
Tenacious Magpies’ attacker Muto was another man in blue to impress. He rose to nod in Sei Muroya’s cross minutes after falling behind as the Blue Samurai wiped away the White Wolves’ advantage.
The 26-year-old generally buzzed about the pitch and has been a bright point, at times, for Newcastle in an otherwise turbulent 2018/19 campaign – scoring his only Magpies goal against Manchester United at Old Trafford before Christmas, he made it 2-0 to Rafa Benitez’s side before the home side staged a comeback to win 3-2.
Gamba Osaka defender Genta Miura will also have given manager Moriyasu food for thought with a solid performance.
For Hector Cuper’s side, 22-year-old midfielders Dostonbek Khamdamov and Otabek Shukurov – the latter plays in the UAE with AGL leaders Sharjah – continued to look impressive, even though they have featured prominently for the Uzbeks in the UAE.
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