Japan got off to the perfect start at the 2015 Asian Cup on Monday, and I was in Newcastle to see their comfortable win over debutants Palestine…
NEWCASTLE, AUSTRALIA – Japan cruised to an opening game victory in the Asian Cup on Monday, defeating Palestine 4-0 in front of 15,497 fans at Newcastle Stadium.
Goals from Yasuhito Endo, Shinji Okazaki, Keisuke Honda, and Maya Yoshida ensured the Samurai Blue got the defense of the title they won in 2011 off to a perfect start, although debutant Palestine was an exceptionally obliging opponent.
Endo fired Japan into the lead in just the eighth minute of the encounter. The 2014 J.League player of the year received the ball from Takashi Inui in acres of space 30 meters from goal, and with no Palestinian defender applying pressure he set his sights and drilled his 15th national team goal beyond the despairing dive of Ramzi Saleh and into the bottom corner.
While Javier Aguirre’s side was not playing to the best of its ability, Palestine – facing Japan in a competitive match for the first ever time in its first ever game at the Asian Cup – was clearly out of its depth and struggled to maintain possession of any kind.
After 25 minutes fine work by Yuto Nagatomo resulted in Japan doubling its lead. The Inter Milan player squirmed in behind the Palestine defence on the left-hand side of the box, and his cross was helped on by Takashi Inui. The ball fell to Shinji Kagawa who was lurking on the edge of the penalty area, and his effort was diverted into the net by Okazaki.
“I’m pleased with the one goal, but I’m not satisfied with the amount of chances I made,” Okazaki said.
The Palestinians had a rare opportunity in the 41st minute, but Ismail Alamour wasn’t able to replicate Endo’s precision shooting from earlier in the half and dragged his effort wide of Eiji Kawashima’s right-hand post after the goal opened up for him 25 meters out.
A minute later Japan moved another goal ahead. Musab Battat was harshly adjudged to have shoved Kagawa inside the box, and Keisuke Honda dispatched the resultant penalty with the minimum of fuss, driving it into the center-right of the goal as Saleh flung himself in the opposite direction.
Japan had the wind in its sails and the strong breeze driving through Newcastle Stadium at its backs in the second half, and it took just four minutes to add to its tally.
Endo almost scored a carbon copy of his opener, receiving from Kagawa outside the penalty area and aiming for Saleh’s bottom right corner again, although this time the goalkeeper was a match for the effort and tipped it round the post.
That only produced brief respite for the Palestinians, though, and from the resultant corner Japan made it four.
Kagawa was played in after a short pass from Endo, and the Borussia Dortmund star did well to lose Khader Abuhammad with a sharp turn before dinking the ball up to the back post where Maya Yoshida outjumped Mahmoud Dhadha and Ahmed Mahajna to head powerfully home.
Things got even harder for Palestine in the 73rd minute as Ahmed Mahajna was sent off for a second yellow card. The defender was flummoxed by a quick turn of feet by Yoshinori Muto, who had replaced Endo just before the hour mark, and received his marching orders after lunging in on the tricky FC Tokyo forward in the centre of the park.
Japan had long since taken its foot off the gas, though, and while the team constantly pressed it was unable to add to its haul, missing a host of chances, much to the chagrin of Aguirre who was his usual expressive self in the technical area as chance after chance went begging.
“It’s a shame it finished 4-0,” Endo said. “We wanted more goals. Everyone was pressing forward, but there were lots of misses.”
There was further regret for Japan’s opponent, too. Abdallatif Albahdari had a golden chance to score a historic goal for Palestine, but after beating Yoshida in the air his header from a free-kick on the right thundered past the post in the 82nd minute.
Japan is aiming to defend the Asian Cup for the second time, after it won back-to-back championships in 2000 and 2004.
Up next for the Samurai Blue is Iraq in Brisbane on Friday, before it completes its Group D commitments against Jordan in Melbourne next Tuesday.