I was at Nagai Stadium in Osaka on Tuesday night to see the latest clash between two of Asia’s prominent rivals, Japan and Australia. After the game I spoke to some of the key protagonists for The Japan News…
OSAKA — The rivalry between Japan and Australia has steadily developed into one of the biggest in Asian soccer, and the latest clash between the sides — in which Japan edged 2-1 in Osaka on Tuesday night — demonstrated why the two are the favorites in January’s Asian Cup.
In the 2011 final, it took an extra-time wonder strike from Tadanari Lee to separate the teams, and after an unconvincing start to Javier Aguirre’s reign as coach, the serious business has begun for the Samurai Blue as they look to defend their crown.
“The coach expected it of us,” Keisuke Honda said of the victory, which came swiftly on the heels of a 6-0 drubbing of Honduras last Friday. “It wasn’t a test, he expected a result, and it’s good that we were able to achieve that.
“Australia were really good,” the AC Milan star continued. “They were aggressive and speedy yet didn’t make many mistakes on the counterattack. They didn’t make many errors and in the beginning we had to endure that. I think they are probably our strongest rivals for the Asian Cup, along with South Korea.”
Goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima was pleased with the way Japan weathered an early onslaught from the Socceroos, and feels it will give them belief as they target a fifth Asian title.
“It was a big test before the Asian Cup and in Australia, it was a good opponent,” the Standard Liege stopper said. “The biggest thing is that we were able to win. The opposition came aggressively, and we were able to deal with that and produce a good result. We’re a new team, and I think that will give us lots of confidence.”
Maya Yoshida said there are still creases to be ironed out.
“I think in the first half we didn’t play very well,” the Southampton defender explained. “In the second half, we could score two goals and played a little better, but I’m not satisfied with this result because we conceded one goal at the end of the game, and we should have scored a third goal as well.”
Thankfully for Japan, two strikes were enough, and while Shinji Okazaki finding the net is no rare occurrence — his exquisite flick made it 40 goals for the national team — Yasuyuki Konno opening the scoring was unexpected, even for the man himself.
“I was surprised,” the Gamba Osaka veteran told The Japan News. “I’m not the kind of player who scores goals, and I was surprised to be able to convert one on this stage.”
Tim Cahill is no stranger to doing that, though, and his injury-time header was his fifth goal against Japan. The New York Red Bulls striker sees the holders as the team to beat if Australia is to taste victory in front of its own fans.
“I think we have to work really hard to get to the final, both countries. Japan’s one of Asia’s best and probably favorites for the tournament, regardless of us having it at home. You see the quality of their players all over the park and in stages in the second half, they changed gear a little.”
Japan starts its defense on Jan. 12 against Palestine before taking on Iraq on Jan. 16 and Jordan on Jan. 20. With the hosts in Group A and Japan in Group D, the earliest they could face each other would be the semifinals. If both were to top their respective groups, they would be kept apart until a possible reunion in the final.
“At home, hopefully it’s going to be a different story, and we can capitalize on it and put them in an uncomfortable environment when they come to Australia,” Cahill said. “If we meet.”
Konno does anticipate another rematch. “You don’t know if it will be the final or not, but I think we may meet them at some point,” the 31-year-old said. “I hope we can bring them down at that time.”