(Adds Kasimov quotes in para 10)
By Alastair Himmer
SAITAMA, Japan, Oct 15 (Reuters) - Japan were held to a 1-1 draw by Uzbekistan in a World Cup qualifier on Wednesday, piling more pressure on coach Takeshi Okada.
Uzbekistan took the lead against the run of play, striker Maksim Shatskikh sliding in to score from close range after 27 minutes to stun a crowd of 55,000 in Saitama.
Japan equalised through striker Keiji Tamada, who bundled home Yoshito Okubo’s pull-back five minutes before halftime.
“It’s a blow but it’s a long road so we have to keep going,” Okada told reporters. “We’re not pushing the panic button just yet.”
Tamada went close from distance in the 71st minute before blazing over from the resulting corner as Japan pushed for the winner but Uzbekistan were worthy of a point.
The result leaves Japan second in Group A with four points from two games behind leaders Australia, who have a maximum six points after crushing Qatar 4-0 earlier on Wednesday.
“We wanted to take the three points but we showed character to fight back from a goal down,” said midfielder Shunsuke Nakamura. “The final pass let us down and we didn’t really have enough power in front of goal.”
Japan beat Bahrain 3-2 away last month in their opening game in the final round of Asian regional qualifiers, while Uzbekistan had lost their first two games.
“We battled hard and deserved a draw,” said new Uzbekistan coach Mirdjalal Kasimov. “This point will give the players a lift and motivate them for the remaining games.”
Okada, who led Japan to their first World Cup in 1998, has faced criticism in his second spell in charge after an unconvincing qualifying campaign.
The 52-year-old returned to the job last December after former coach, Bosnian Ivica Osim, suffered a stroke.
The top two in the two five-team Asian groups qualify automatically for the 2010 tournament in South Africa.
Editing by Ken Ferris and Pritha Sarkar