Al Ain's Tsukasa Shiotani the hero as Japan secure top spot in Group F at Asian Cup
Spectacular strike gives Japanese side their third successive win at the tournament in the UAE
Tsukasa Shiotani obviously has a knack for the spectacular.
Known primarily for his industry and endeavour, Al Ain’s Mr Versatile has this season displayed an ability to plunder goals that catch the eye.
There was the lasp-gasp volley against Kalba in the Arabian Gulf League encounter in November, that arrowed into the top corner from the edge of the penalty area. It secured the UAE champions a vital three points.
Then there was the fine, crisp finish to spark a turnaround against Team Wellington in last month’s Fifa Club World Cup opener. Three goals down against the part-timers, Shiotani set Al Ain on their way to escaping ignominy.
He netted in the final, too, scoring a consolation header, against Real Madrid, no less.
So it shouldn’t really have surprised, then, on Thursday, when Shiotani marked his Asian Cup debut with a superb strike for Japan against Uzbekistan.
Stationed around 25 yards from goal, he met a low clearance with a thunderous, left-footed strike that arched away from and flew past Ignatiy Nesterov in the opposition net. Typically resolute, the Uzbek captain simply watched as the ball crashed past him.
Shiotani’s intervention just so happened to be the game’s decisive action. It settled the final-round fixture in Group F, clinched Japan a 2-1 victory and secured the four-time winner’s passage to the knockout stages as pool winners. Having actually taken the lead at Al Ain’s Khalifa bin Zayed Stadium, the Uzbeks had to make do with finishing runners-up.
For all Shiotani’s efforts, though, he might have been upstaged. Undoubtedly one of the goals of the tournament thus far, it may not have been even the best in this game.
That honour could have fallen upon Eldor Shomurodov, Uzbekistan’s exciting forward, who on 40 minutes slalomed away from the Japan defence, cut inside from the right and flicked a sublime finish past rival goalkeeper Daniel Schmidt.
Uzbekistan’s advantage lasted less than three minutes. Japan full-back Sei Murova did brilliantly to advance along the right flank before whipping a fantastic cross into the Uzbek area. Yoshinori Muto, the maligned Newcastle United frontman, rose well to apply a powerful header to level the match.
Then, Shiotani stepped up just before the hour to rocket Japan into the last 16. His teammates did spurn another couple of chances, and Schmidt had to save expertly from Davron Hashimov's fierce long-range drive late on, but Hajime Moriyasu’s makeshift side – he made 10 changes to the line-up - hung in there to extend their 100 per cent record and top the group.
If they had began the tournament with two laboured victories, against Turkmenistan and Oman, Japan came through their first significant test. Next up, either Saudi Arabia or Qatar in Sharjah on Monday.
Uzbekistan, meanwhile, must make do with Australia,the defending champions, back at the Khalifa bin Zayed Stadium on the same day.
Carried away from his familiar home on the back of his fabulous hit, Shiotani will hope his dream debut has put him in the reckoning for another star role.
Updated: January 17, 2019 10:42 PM