January 31 – Four-time Asian Cup champions Japan secured their place in the quarter finals of the competition with a comfortable 3-1 victory over group-topping Bahrain.
Hajime Moriyasu’s side conducted a neat and tidy operation on their outmatched opposition – an otherwise flawless performance if not for Zion Suzuki’s clumsiness to gift Bahrain a brief shred of hope.
Japan entered the match from a surprising second-placed finish in Group D, where the side’s free-flowing attack and goalscoring ability was marred but its leaky defence that conceded five goals in three games. Regardless, they are a team glittering with star quality that were the favourites entering the tie, despite Bahrain’s group-topping status.
Capitalising on South Korea’s fumble versus Malaysia, Bahrain had earned top spot in Group E thanks to narrow victories over quarter finals-bound Jordan and Malaysia. With Juan Antonio Pizzi, who took Chile to the 2016 Copa America over Leo Messi’s rampant Argentina – they have a manager that knows how to engineer an upset.
Borussia Monchengladbach centre half Ko Itakura returned to start for Japan after recovering from a minor injury that ruled him out of the closing group win over Indonesia. Besides Itakura’s return, Moriyasu kept an unchanged squad, but this time armed with Brighton’s talented winger Kauro Mitoma on the bench. Equally unchanged was the four-time cup champion’s formation, which remained the typical 4-3-3 that you’d expect from a Moriyasu side that transitions into a 4-4-2 in defence.
Meanwhile, Bahrain kept a similar look to the team that beat Jordan, the only switch coming on the left side of defence as youngster Abdulla El Khalassy made way for the more experienced Hazaa Ali. Equally unchanged in formation, the Bahrain team were in the round of 16 to prove a point.
Japan opened match with pace and energy but were at risk of being caught out in possession.
In the Al Thumama Stadium that had more cold seats than warm, the players faced far less pressure from the stands as their Asian Cup counterparts in the Saudi Arabia v Korea game the night before, which was ferocious for the full 120 minutes.
Japan tested a frantic Bahrain defence in the early stages and looked as though they had shed the cobwebs of the group stages.
Bahrain forced the first chance of the game from a quick break, which saw striker Abdulla Yusuf Helal beat the defence for pace but fire a tame shot into the gloves of Suzuki.
Resisting the early pressure from a confident Japan, Bahrain grew into the first half, with six-foot-seven Helal proving to be particularly troublesome as he looked use his physicality.
But it was Ritsu Doan who gave Japan a deserved lead in the 30th minute, converting the rebound as Seiya Maikuma smashed the woodwork from long range.
Looking to pile on Bahrain’s moment of weakness, Japan went up a gear to pin the opposition back into their own half.
As the half came to a close Japan were on top, and early in the second half doubled their lead. 22-year-old star Takefusa Kubo scored an instinctive finish.
Smelling blood in the leaky Bahrain defence, Feyernoord’s Ayase Ueda came close to adding a quick-fire third for his side, but was denied by Ebrahim Lutfalla.
They did score five minutes later, this time ruled out for an offside in the build-up.
A comical mishap from Japan’s Suzuki gifted Bahrain a route back into the match, juggling the ball into his own net via a deflection from his own striker Ueda as he failed to command his box from a corner.
Kubo was replaced in the 67th minute by Kaoru Mitoma, returning from injury. In the buildup to the change, Kubo was clutching his shoulder. Moriyasu will hope it is nothing serious after a superb display from the Real Sociedad player.
Japan had a third when Ueda undid his work in his own box with a tidy finish between Lutfalla’s legs to reinstate his side’s two-goal lead. The goal takes his tally in the Asian Cup to four.
The Bahraini frustration was clear to see, illustrated by Waleed Al Hayam’s flying challenge that wiped out Doan with no sign of the ball.
With a minute to play, Mitoma surrendered the chance to open his Asian Cup account with a scuffed volley from close range. It didn’t matter, Japan are starting to find form.
Contact the writer of this story, Harry Ewing, at firstname.lastname@example.org