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Group D of the AFC U23 Asian Cup 2022 got off to an interesting beginning on Friday as Japan defeated the UAE 2-1 while it was a perfect start for Saudi Arabia with a 5-0 win over Tajikistan.

Here are five things we learned from the action. 

1. Saudi Arabia send a message

The 5-0 victory may have sounded comfortable but Tajikistan did not make it easy. The Central Asians, making their debut in this tournament, started both halves brightly before being pushed back and then defended in numbers and with discipline. 

The attacking talent of Saudi Arabia was just too good, however, and this was an impressive display going forward. Hamad Al-Yami broke the deadlock in style just before the break and just after Ayman Yahya added a second point with another well-taken strike. When Haitham Asiri made it three midway through the half, there was only going to be one winner. There was still time for Moteb Al-Harbi to add a fourth and then Abdullah Radif scored from the spot with the last kick of the game.

It all means that it was a perfect start for the West Asian team who have made the past two finals. That does not mean that their name is on the trophy but it was an impressive all-round display that will surely make rivals sit up and take notice. Just think, they are still waiting for Firas Al-Buraikan and Hassan Tambakti to join the squad after finishing their training camp with the senior side.

2. Missed penalty a turning point for UAE

The first half between the UAE and Japan had been a fascinating affair but there had not been that much goalmouth action to write home to Abu Dhabi or Tokyo about. Then, the game exploded to life around the hour mark. Yuito Suzuki put the Samurai Blue ahead but within two minutes the Whites were level thanks to a thunderous half-volley from Yaser Alblooshi. 

The match really turned in the 71st minute. A Japanese handball gave Denis Silva’s men a perfect opportunity to take the lead and make a major step toward the quarter-finals. Abdulla Idrees stepped up but his spot-kick was well-saved by Zion Suzuki. Not long after, Mao Hasoye headed into the roof of the UAE net and that was that.

Had that penalty been scored by the Al-Jazira man then the situation would surely now be looking very different. It means that UAE are on the backfoot and need to take three points against Tajikistan on Monday to stay alive in the competition.

3. Al-Yami’s moment of brilliance will live long in the memory

Millions of football fans have heard the old cliche that goes something like: “If Lionel Messi/a Brazilian had scored that goal, we would never hear the end of it.” In Tashkent, however, there really was a strike that deserves a wider audience and wider discussion. 

At the end of the first half, head coach Saad Al-Shehri could have been forgiven for feeling a little frustrated. Saudi Arabia had close to three-quarters of possession but couldn’t find a way through. Then Hamad Al-Yami intervened. A low shot outside the area from Hamed Al-Ghamdi looked to be going wide but Al-Yami was standing with his back to goal and then instinctively flicked the ball into the bottom corner of the net. It may have been instinctive but it was also very deliberate and a moment of pure class, and must surely be in the running for the goal of the tournament.

It is to be hoped that this gives the Al-Hilal player a real confidence boost ahead over the coming days.

4. UAE still can take positives

Playing against Japan is never easy and while UAE will be disappointed with the 2-1 defeat, there are some positives to take from the performance.

Defensively, they were largely solid and were completely solid until the hour. The first goal came as Eid Khamis, who had not put a foot wrong hitherto, failed to clear a ball into the area to leave Yuito Suzuki able to score from close range. The second goal was just a lovely move. A perfect cross from Shuto Fujio’s cross was headed home perfectly by Hosoya.

There was also the performance of Yaser Alblooshi. The 21-year-old came off the bench after 57 minutes and immediately caused problems with his direct running. Six minutes later, he scored a spectacular equalizer, collecting a long-range pass in the air and lashed a fierce half-volley off the crossbar that gave the goalkeeper no chance. The Al-Ittihad Kalba man may just have earned a starting spot in the next game.

5. There is little time to rest

When it comes to youth tournaments, the Asian Football Confederation likes to run through the games quickly and a game every three days is par for the course. It means that there is little time to put things right on the training ground. Pretty much all you can do is rest from the previous game, do a little light work and then get ready for the next clash.

Saudi Arabia can take on Japan knowing that a draw will be a decent result but a win could mean a place in the last eight with a game to spare. That clash is already looking like the big one of the group stage and will give a good idea of where both teams are.

For the UAE, the situation is clear; they have to defeat Tajikistan. Anything else and elimination is virtually certain.

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