DOHA: Four-time champions Japan eased into the quarter-finals of the Asian Cup with a clinical 3-1 victory over Bahrain on Wednesday at Al Thumama Stadium with goals from Ritsu Doan, Takefusa Kubo and Ayase Ueda.
Bahrain coach Juan Anotnio Pizzi had been looking to heal old wounds after his Saudi Arabia team lost to Japan at the same stage in 2019 but Hajime Moriyasu’s side put in a commanding performance and rarely looked troubled against the Gulf nation.
Japan will face the winner of the final last-16 tie between Iran and Syria.
“All Asian teams here at the Asian Cup are getting better, the level of football has grown. But even though other teams are growing, we’ve managed to improve as well which is down to our players’ efforts,” Moriyasu told reporters. “But I don’t think today’s performances were 100% and we can still improve.”
Japan took the lead in the 31st minute when Seiya Maikuma unleashed a venomous strike that crashed off the post but midfielder Doan was alert to pounce on the rebound to score from close range.
Japan went 2-0 up just after halftime through a stroke of good fortune when an unmarked Kubo received the ball inside the box, turned and fired home, with the goal being awarded after a VAR check for an offside call.
The Real Sociedad forward looked to be in an offside position when the ball broke loose to him, but the final ball had come off a Bahrain defender.
Bahrain halved the deficit from a corner when Japan keeper Zion Suzuki saved Sayed Baqer’s header but as he attempted to catch the ball when it looped up in the air, Ueda tried to head it clear and they collided as the ball went over the line.
While Moriyasu was not too concerned about the own goal, Japan have failed to keep a clean sheet in every game at the tournament so far.
“It’s true we conceded a goal, every opponent we come up against will analyse us and expose our weak points,” Japan skipper Wataru Endo said. “I know we have to make this right, we have to concentrate for 90 minutes.”
However, Ueda made amends for the own goal when he made it 3-1 after quickly evading three Bahrain defenders and as they tried to stop him racing away by pulling his shirt, the striker pulled the trigger from a tight angle to beat the keeper.
The game also saw Kaoru Mitoma make his return from injury and the Brighton & Hove Albion winger sent a buzz around the arena when he made several chances with his agility and speed on the ball, skipping past defenders with sublime ease.
But Japan did not capitalise on his forays into the box while Bahrain keeper Ebrahim Lutfalla also stood firm to deny the east Asian side a fourth goal as they bowed out of the tournament after winning Group ‘E’ ahead of South Korea.
“It was a difficult match, they were stronger, they were better than us technically and physically. They have players with great individual skills,” Pizzi, who won the 2016 Copa America with Chile, said. “Japan have had the same coach for many years. Even their substitutes had the same quality when they came off the bench.”
STAND-IN KEEPER JO STARS
On Tuesday, second-choice goalkeeper Jo Hyeon-woo was South Korea’s hero as they beat Saudi Arabia 4-2 on penalties to set up an Asian Cup quarter-final with Australia after a thrilling last-16 tie ended 1-1 after extra time at Education City Stadium.
Jo stepped up earlier in the tournament when regular number one Kim Seung-gyu was injured in training, and the back-up proved he was up to the job after South Korea’s Cho Gue-sung’s 99th-minute equaliser to cancel out Abdullah Radif’s opener.
Jo said “belief” was the key to stopping spot kicks from Sami Al-Najei and Abdulrahman Ghareeb in the shootout, before Hwang Hee-chan converted the decisive penalty for Jurgen Klinsmann’s side.
“The coach told us to believe in the team and I think that’s what really paid off,” said Jo. “We gave everything on the pitch, and when it came to a shootout I had confidence I could make saves. I’m happy I could take my team through to the next round.”
South Korea converted all their spot kicks to advance but they will have only two days to recover after playing 120 minutes, with their quarter-final clash against 2015 champions Australia taking place on Friday.
“That’s the reason why I badly wanted to win our group. Some people said I was happy not to top the group and avoid Japan. We didn’t win the group and we’ve paid the price,” Klinsmann said.
“But this win has given this team more spirit. I enjoy coaching this group and they badly want to do well for their country. We wanted to win before penalties, we didn’t count on a shootout. We will recover because we have a good atmosphere. This win tonight gives us a lot of optimism, belief and energy — which we will need to beat Australia.”
Saudi coach Roberto Mancini, who won the European Championship with his native Italy in 2021, disappeared down the tunnel before Hwang took the final penalty.
“I apologise for this, I thought the shootout was over,” said Mancini, who also brushed aside questions about his future as Saudi Arabia’s coach. “I don’t think you understand the level of Korea, it’s too high. They have incredible players.
“I’m very sad after conceding a goal in the last minute and losing a penalty shootout. I don’t understand why 10 minutes of extra time was added. As a team it’s clear we have to improve more at this level, we have to work.”
Saudi Arabia had the best chance of the first half when two headers from a corner crashed off the crossbar while a third destined for the top corner was parried away by Jo.
However, Saudi Arabia took the lead immediately after the restart when halftime substitute Radif made an instant impact 30 seconds after coming on. Salem Al-Dawsari redirected a pass into the path of Radif and the substitute lashed the ball past Jo.
Klinsmann’s side threw everything at the Saudis in a frantic end to the 90 minutes and substitute Cho hit the bar with an injury-time header.
The striker got his reward in the ninth minute of added time, nodding home to send the game into extra time.