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Tokyo 2020 is what matters to us, says Saudi Arabia's Al Shehri

Bangkok: Saad Al Shehri put thoughts of revenge to one side as he celebrated guiding Saudi Arabia to an opening victory over Japan on Thursday as the West Asian nation picked up a 2-1 win over Hajime Moriyasu’s side in Group B of the AFC U23 Championship Thailand 2020.

Abdulrahman Ghareeb’s penalty two minutes from time sealed the three points for the Saudis as Al Shehri earned some personal payback for the defeat he suffered at the hands of the Japanese in the final of the AFC U19 Championship in Bahrain in 2016.

But while the Saudi coach would be forgiven for rejoicing at avenging that defeat – which came via a penalty shootout – he chose instead to look to the future, and the prospect of qualifying his country for the Olympic Games for the first time since 1996.

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“I feel happy when I win, against Japan or against any team,” said Al Shehri. “I wasn’t thinking about (revenge), I’m thinking about qualifying for Tokyo because this is our goal and this is just the first step against Japan.

“It’s good for us because they’re a strong team. But I think Qatar and Syria will also be important for us, maybe more important. For me, I’m happy if I win and my country wins. This is very important for me.”

#AFCU23 - MD1 Group B: Japan 1-2 Saudi Arabia

The result against Japan gives Saudi Arabia the best start imaginable in their quest for a place at the Olympics Games in Tokyo as Al Shehri’s side move to the top of the early standings in Group B.

Ayman Al Khulaif had given Saudi Arabia the lead three minutes into the second half only for Ryotaro Meshino to level the scores nine minutes later. Ghareeb’s penalty sealed the points for his side as Al Shehri stressed his team’s strength lies beyond his goal-scoring duo.

“You cannot win against Japan if you only have two players,” he said. “We play as a team. We had a good performance all together. Ghareeb and Ayman are part of the team and they are playing for team. All the players did a good job.”

Moriyasu was left lamenting the loss, and in particular the miscommunication between goalkeeper Keisuke Osako and defender Makoto Okazaki that led to the scoring of Saudi Arabia’s winner.

“The players started the game well, and we knew it would be a tough game,” said the Japan coach. “We had chances, but we conceded the first goal and then we came back. From then on we created chances and the result could have been a different one."

“However, the second goal was because of a mistake in the combination between ours players, so we want to improve the quality for the next match. The players showed their ability and we want to stay confident and prepare for the next game.”

Japan will have to bounce back against Syria on Sunday to keep their dreams alive while Saudi Arabia could seal qualification to the knockout stage with a win against Qatar.

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