Japan were eliminated from the Asian Cup on Friday, but coach Javier Aguirre believed they had done enough to progress to the semi-finals…
SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA – Javier Aguirre was at a loss to explain Japan’s early exit from the Asian Cup on Friday night, firmly believing that his players had done enough to overcome the United Arab Emirates and progress to the semifinals.
The Samurai Blue were aiming to extend their record as the most successful team in the competition’s history, but instead of adding a fifth crown in Australia the holder was dumped out at the quarterfinal stage for the first time since 1996, losing 5-4 on penalties after a 1-1 draw.
“I don’t want to make any excuses – the players were prepared,” the Mexican said post-game. “I don’t want to say that we didn’t have enough luck. Today I think we showed enough to win the game and deserved the victory. We fought well and I want the players to continue to do that.”
Whether Aguirre will still be around to oversee the next stage of the team’s development remains unclear, and this underachievement will hardly have strengthened his position.
It seems increasingly likely that the 56-year-old will have to defend himself in a Spanish court against allegations of match-fixing while he was in charge of Real Zaragoza in 2011, and his failure to make a decent fist of Japan’s title defense could give the Japan Football Association a convenient opportunity to bring his brief tenure to a close.
Aguirre’s future was not on the agenda as the post-mortem began in Stadium Australia, though, and the former Atletico Madrid coach was adamant that his players had done enough to win the game.
“I’m proud of this team, they gave everything in these 120 minutes,” he said. “We played better than the opponent in every aspect, including attacking.
“More than the opposition, we took control of the pace of the game. Ultimately we lost, but we have to keep playing this way.
“I’m happy with the quantity of chances we made. I’d be worried if we had only created a few, as the opponent did, but that wasn’t the case and we have to keep going in the same way in the future and to try and score more.”
Indeed, Japan outshot the UAE by a remarkable 35 shots to three – although it only managed to find the target with eight of those attempts, and allowed Ali Mabkhout to score far too easily after a long ball in the 7th minute.
“Because of a lack of care at the start of the game we conceded a goal,” Aguirre complained. “After that the opponent retreated and played behind for 110 minutes.”
Substitute Gaku Shibasaki did pull Japan level in the 81st minute, and it was not in regulation play but from the penalty spot that Japan ultimately lost the game. The side’s star players Keisuke Honda and Shinji Kagawa both failed to convert from 12 yards in the shoot-out, but Aguirre was not open to casting blame.
“Keisuke is a great player. He scored three goals [in the tournament] and was a great leader of this team. In a penalty situation anyone can miss. I saw he had confidence so that’s why he was one of the kickers.”
Honda skied the opening penalty but it was Kagawa who missed what proved to be the decisive kick.
“I have to make sense of things, the fact that my miss ultimately caused the defeat,” Kagawa said after the loss.
The 25-year-old has had a difficult couple of years – failing to establish himself at Manchester United, performing poorly at the World Cup in Brazil, and then returning to a Borussia Dortmund side embroiled in the Bundesliga relegation battle – and this latest setback meant he cut a forlorn figure in the mixed zone.
“I’m really sorry. I felt that we had a lot of potential playing this kind of football – it was really enjoyable. I wanted to progress to the semi-finals and final so am very sorry. It was very fulfilling and so [being out] is difficult to take.”