MELBOURNE, Jan 22 (Reuters) - Reigning champions Japan have cruised into the last eight of the Asian Cup but should face the first proper test of their title credentials when they take on United Arab Emirates in Friday’s quarter-final in Sydney.
Inspired by midfielder Omar Abdulrahman, the Emiratis were within a controversial stoppage-time goal of topping their first round group and produced one of the performances of the tournament to thrash Qatar 4-1 in their opener.
They will have to be at their very best at Stadium Australia to beat the four-times champion Samurai Blue, who have looked unstoppable going forward and have yet to concede a goal in the tournament so far.
Japan coach Javier Aguirre might need to make the first change to his starting line-up in four matches in Australia after central defender Masato Morishige took a knock on the head in their final group game against Jordan.
There are no problems up front, however, where striker Keisuke Honda has justified his billing as Asia’s top footballer by scoring a goal a game.
Shinji Kagawa will also take a confidence boost from having broken a long scoring drought in the 2-0 victory over Jordan on Tuesday which wrapped up Japan’s group campaign.
Honda added the quick turnaround for Japan to his list of complaints about the tournament but the Emiratis would be unwise to underestimate Japan’s determination to defend their title.
“We are in the knockout stage. One mistake can make a big difference. We must fight together. Everything we have worked for is in this moment,” defender Yuto Nagatomo told reporters in Sydney on Thursday.
United Arab Emirates coach Mahdi Ali will be without defender Walid Abbas, who received a second yellow card of the tournament from the Japanese referee in the match against Iran.
Abdelaziz Haikal will come into the defence to replace him but it is at the other end of the pitch that Ali hopes the Emiratis will make their first impression.
“I hope that we score first tomorrow,” he told reporters. “Maybe, the Japanese team’s defence has not been tested in the past three games.
“We have a good generation, a good team, and we have worked very hard for the past years to prepare this team. We are optimistic that we can go further in this competition.”
The reward for the winners will be a semi-final against hosts Australia in Newcastle next Tuesday. (Editing by Amlan Chakraborty)