SAITAMA (Japan) • The Japanese national football team were left to rue a refereeing howler as they crashed to a 2-1 home defeat by United Arab Emirates in a woeful start to their World Cup qualifying final round yesterday.
AC Milan's Keisuke Honda nodded the hosts in front at the soldout, 63,700-capacity Saitama Stadium.
But UAE grabbed all the points after Ahmed Khalil's sumptuous free kick and penalty either side of half-time.
Japan should have finished the Group B game 2-2 but the officials failed to spot that Takuma Asano's shot, clawed away by Khalid Eisa, had crossed the line, as shown by TV replays.
Qatari referee Abdulrahman Al Jassim waved away Japan's protests as the Blue Samurai crashed once again to UAE, their conquerors in last year's Asian Cup quarter-finals.
Japan made the perfect start when Honda, capitalising on some slack defending, leapt unmarked to head in a free kick at the far post on 11 minutes.
Shinji Okazaki fired just wide before the UAE got their chance to draw level when Southampton defender Maya Yoshida brought down Ali Mabkhout just outside the box.
Khalil stepped up and his dipping free kick went in off the underside of the crossbar via the gloves of goalkeeper Shusaku Nishikawa, who will feel he could have done better.
Borussia Dortmund's Shinji Kagawa had a golden chance to restore Japan's lead but with the goal-mouth begging, he bundled a rebound from a Honda header wide.
At the other end, Mabkhout almost put UAE in front but this time Nishikawa was equal to his first-time shot from close range.
Japan came out firing at the start of the second half and Ryota Oshima's fierce shot drew a fingertip save from UAE stopper Eisa.
But when Abdelaziz Sanqour was tripped in the box, Khalil was again the go-to man and he produced an exquisite chipped penalty down the centre as Nishikawa dived to his right.
The goal triggered some frenzied action from Japan and they were desperately unlucky when Okazaki's header cannoned off the bar just before the hour mark.
Things got worse for the hosts with Asano's goal that was not and captain Makoto Hasebe remonstrated with the referee at the final whistle, while UAE players knelt and raised their arms in grateful prayer.
The UAE, who will regard this as one of the greatest results in their recent history, next face Australia, the reigning Asian champions, in Abu Dhabi on Tuesday, while Japan travel to Thailand.