Japan roared back from a goal down against Tunisia in Sharjah to edge their opponents 2-1 on the day and seal first place in Group D. A pair of goals in the final minutes of the game were enough to see the talented east Asians take top spot with a perfect nine points from three matches, while Tunisia also go through in second spot. Russia, the third-place finishers in the section, will have to wait and see if their three points will be enough to see them into the knockout rounds too.
Both sides were assured of a place in the Round of 16 before kicking off, but there was still plenty on the line as the first-place team in the section stays in Sharjah, thus avoiding disruptive travel. Both coaches, however, decided to make wholesale changes to their line-up with qualification to the knockout rounds already in the bag.
The Japanese, who lacked a little of their previous fluency with so many changes in the team, had the first chance after only four minutes. Kosei Uryu cut in from the left and took a good shot with his right boot that was gobbled up hungrily by Tunisia keeper Hamza Ben Chrifia.
Five minutes later it was Tunisia’s turn to roar up the field. Hazem Haj Hassen broke up the left on a counter-attack and crossed for Maher Gabsi, who had his shot blocked by a lunging Japanese defender. Seconds later, they were on the break again and Haj Hassen was clean through before colliding with the Japanese goalkeeper.
A clever free-kick combination nearly saw Japan take the lead after 33 minutes, but Ryoma Watanabe – who scored two in Japan’s last game – was denied by the diving Ben Chrifia. Despite the occasional Japanese raid, the Tunisians were the better side of the half, and they poured on the pressure in the dying moments. They got their goal in stoppage time when Hazem Haj Hassen released Mohamed Drager, who fired home from the edge of the penalty area to make it 1-0 for the north Africans.
The Japanese come out for the second period looking a rejuvenated side. They controlled the affair, with good chances from Masaomi Nakano and Taro Sugimoto acting as prelude to a pair of late goals to seal the victory. With just three minutes to go, Daisuke Sakai leveled the scores, but he didn't know much about the goal in truth. He was fouled hard in the area by Rached Arfaoui, who only managed to push the ball off Sakai's shin and into the back of the net. Then, with a bit of eleventh-hour drama, Japan sealed the comeback three minutes into stoppage time when Sugimoto crossed low for Watanabe to finish into an open net.