Doha: Shinji Okazaki scored a hat-trick as Japan crushed Saudi Arabia 5-0 in their last Asian Cup group match Monday, booking a quarter-final spot and mauling the pride of their fellow three-time champions.
Ryoichi Maeda also struck twice, either side of half-time, as the Blue Samurai avenged their loss to the Saudis in the 2007 semi-finals, which denied them a record third straight continental title.
Japan had needed just a point to qualify after a draw with Jordan and a 2-1 defeat of Syria. They now face hosts Qatar in the last eight.
The Saudis had already crashed out of contention -- only the second time in Asian Cup history that they have not made it to the knockout stages.
“I’m very satisfied with today’s result. I think we’ve cleared the first hurdle of this tournament,” Japan’s coach Alberto Zaccheroni said.
“We did better in the second match than in the opener and we did better in the third than in the second. I’m glad to see the team growing like that.”
Saudi Arabia coach Nasser Al Johar, who had hoped his side would fight against their old rivals to restore some pride, was apologetic.
“We wished to present you a very beautiful match with Japan. But we haven’t performed in a way to redeem our national team in the entire tournament,” he said.
Al Johar, who replaced Jose Peseiro after the Portuguese was axed after Saudi Arabia’s 2-1 defeat to Syria in their opening game, fended off criticism from Saudi media about his choice of players and tactics.
He then closed the post-match news conference with an apology for the bad performance. “But football is football. Anything can happen in football,” he said.
The Blue Samurai shrugged off the absence of suspended first-choice goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima and two injured key midfielders, Keisuke Honda and Daisuke Matsui.
Ace striker Yasser Al Qahtani attempted the first Saudi shot in the second minute when he trapped a through pass and floated the ball wide.
Shimizu S-Pulse striker Okazaki, filling in for CSKA Moscow’s Honda, missed a chance two minutes later when he narrowly failed to meet Maeda’s cross towards Saudi goalkeeper Waleed Adbullah.
But Okazaki, reportedly nearing a deal with Stuttgart, opened the scoring on eight minutes, trapping a long ball from Yasuhito Endo in the box, lifting the ball over Abdullah and slotting it into an open net.
The 24-year-old, who scored the final goal in Japan’s 3-1 win over Denmark at the World Cup group stages, doubled the score in the 13th minute as he banged home a cross from Borussia Dortmund rookie Shinji Kagawa with a breath-taking diving header.
Maeda, the top J-League scorer, made it 3-0 for Japan six minutes later, hooking home a volley from a Yuto Nagatomo cross.
The Saudis fought hard to pull one back on the half hour, with Taisser Al Jassam shooting straight at Japan’s second-choice custodian Shusaku Nishikawa. Abdullah Shuhail then fired a left-footer far over the bar.
After the break, Japan continued their onslaught with Maeda scoring again on 51 minutes when he headed home a right-wing cross from Masahiko Inoha.
Japan kept possession and the Saudis could not convert any of their limited chances, with Mohammed Al Shalhoub’s dangerous corner on the hour safely caught by Nishikawa.
Okazaki’s third goal came in the 80th minute when he took a short pass just on the edge of the box and slammed a left-foot shot past Abdullah.
Al Shalhoub attempted a free-kick three minutes later from 25 metres but Nishikawa responded sharply to punch it away.
“I’m glad the players did not loosen up after opening the scoring and crushed the slightest bit of hope Saudi Arabia probably had,” said Zaccheroni, who took over the job from Takeshi Okada after Japan reached the World Cup last-16 in South Africa.
On facing Qatar next, he warned: “They have rebuilt themselves after losing their opener and are really pumped up.”