The opening match of Group F saw Japan defeat Turkmenistan 3-2 in front of, officially, 5,725 people at Al Nahyan Stadium in Abu Dhabi.
Japan had to fight all of the way to seal the win but two second half goals within four minutes by Yuya Osako (56’, 60') prevented any chance of another Asian Cup upset after Turkmenistan had taken a surprise lead thanks to a stunning strike by Arslan Amanov (26’).
Ritsu Doan came up with a third to put the result beyond doubt (71’) although the win wasn’t made any easier with Ahmet Atayev tucking away a penalty (79’).
Whether it was lack of atmosphere playing in front of a tiny crowd or the team only able to assemble a few days ago, Japan struggled to stamp their authority on the game. The movement and slick passing was missing.
The first clear cut opportunity went, surprisingly, the way of Turkmenistan. Ruslan Mingazov broke clear but his first touch let him down with goalkeeper Shuichi Gonda able to smother the follow up effort by Vahyt Orazsahedov. However, the resulting corner was a beauty and Mekan Saparov should have put his team one up but he couldn’t keep his header down and it powered over the bar.
In the 26th minute Japan were rocked by a stunning strike from Amanov. There appeared to be little danger as he received the ball on the left but he was given plenty of space and unleashed a right footed drive. It seemed to catch Gonda by surprise and although he got his fingertips to it he was unable to keep out the 35 metre drive (0-1).
Japan immediately upped the ante with Takehiro Tomiyasu producing a slightly misjudged save from Mammet Orazmuhammedov and Gaku Shibasaki guiding a header just wide from a corner.
However, it was Turkmenistan who came closest when, in the 36th minute Gonda had to make an excellent save to his right as Atayev burst through and unleashed a fine effort that was heading for the corner of the goal.
It looked as though the Asian Cup was heading for another upset at half-time with FIFA’s 127th ranked team holding on to their lead.
After the break Japan created several half chances but in the 56th minute Genki Haraguchi fed Osako from the right and he turned brilliantly in the box and gave Orazmuhammedov no chance with his right-footed shot (1-1).
Minutes later and there was confusion at the back for Turkmenistan with Yuto Nagatomo nipping in between Mekan Saparov and Orazmuhammedov as neither claimed the ball. He tucked it back to Osako who tapped in his second. (2-1).
Japan thought that they had done enough when the ever lively Ritsu Doan, in one motion, turned in the penalty area and struck a lovely left foot shot into the far corner (3-1).
Turkemenistan weren’t done with Atayev producing a lovely through ball that saw Gonda bring down Altymyrat Annadurdyyev as he rounded the keeper who was very fortunate to escape with only a yellow card. Atayev put away a very nicely taken penalty into the top corner (3-2).
The last 10 minutes Turkmenistan continued to press in search of an equaliser but in the end Japan held on. They will be happy to have got their campaign off to a winning start in a particularly difficult group as they still have fixtures against Oman and Uzbekistan to come.