Japan rides Honda into driver’s seat

I was in Brisbane on Friday to see another Keisuke Honda penalty and another win for Japan as they established control of Group D at the Asian Cup…

The Japan News, Saturday 17th January, 2015

BRISBANE, AUSTRALIA – Japan moved a step closer to the knockout stage of the Asian Cup on Friday, beating Iraq 1-0 courtesy of a first half Keisuke Honda penalty.

Both teams came into this game on three points after winning their respective openers – Japan beating minnow Palestine 4-0 and Iraq defeating Jordan 1-0 in the first round of Group D matches – and knew that a victory for either here would put them in pole position to progress to the quarterfinals.

There had been concerns that Aguirre and his players would be distracted by the ongoing allegations of match-fixing leveled against the Mexican from his time in charge of Real Zaragoza in 2011. The 56-year-old has maintained that he will only discuss footballing matters during the competition, though, and his team started by far the brighter, dominating the first half.

Its first real chance fell to Shinji Kagawa in the 11th minute. The Borussia Dortmund player was found in behind the Iraq defense by a smart Keisuke Honda pass, but after taking the ball in his stride on the right-hand side of the box Kagawa was unable to get his shot on target, dragging it across the face of goal.

Honda was presented with an even clearer opportunity six minutes later after Yuto Nagatomo won possession back as Amjed Kalaf dawdled trying to clear.

The Inter Milan star cut in from the left onto his right foot and floated an inviting ball to the far post. Honda made a clean enough connection, but while he did manage to send it past the onrushing goalkeeper Jalal Hassan his header bounced back off the post and was cleared to safety.

Japan v. Iraq, Brisbane, Friday 16th January, 2015

In the 23rd minute the Samurai Blue did made the breakthrough. Takashi Inui was played into the left-hand side of the penalty area by a delicious Yasuhito Endo through-ball and slid across goal for the onrushing Kagawa. His effort was blocked by Hassan, although Honda was fouled by Ali Adnan as he looked to keep the attack alive.

The AC Milan playmaker dusted himself off and kept his cool from the spot for the second game in a row, sending the goalkeeper the wrong way and converting into the bottom right corner – just as he’d done in Japan’s opener against Palestine.

There was a slight scare for Japan as the opening period drew to a close, as Amjed Kalaf tore down the right and cut back for Younus Mahmood. Iraq’s talisman was unable to get proper purchase on his shot, however, and Eiji Kawashima was able to smother the ball.

Honda almost doubled Japan’s lead within two minutes of the restart. An attempted through-ball returned to him off an Iraqi defender, but his right-footed effort thumped against the bar from just outside the box.

In the 65th minute he hit the woodwork again, although he really should have done better on this occasion. Kagawa fed the overlapping Nagatomo on the left, who in turn guided the ball across goal to Honda at the back post. With the gaping net at his mercy he failed to add to his tally, though, striking against the post.

The 28-year-old allowed himself a rueful smile at that miss, and thankfully wasn’t made to regret it, and although Iraq attacked with a little more purpose in the second half they were unable to fashion any clear-cut chances and Japan hung on for the win.

Japan now need just a draw against Jordan in Melbourne on Tuesday to ensure top spot in the group, and a quarterfinal clash against either the United Arab Emirates or Iran the following Friday.


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