Japan were held to a shock 0-0 draw and heckled off the pitch in their opening World Cup qualifier against Singapore on Tuesday. After the game I gathered reaction on the match – and the reaction to it – from Keisuke Honda, Maya Yoshida, Eiji Kawashima, Hiroki Sakai, Tomoaki Makino, and the man who thwarted them, Izwan Mahbud…
SAITAMA — Being booed off the pitch under a steady downpour wasn’t how Japan’s World Cup qualifying campaign was supposed to start.
The Samurai Blue had been ruthless in Vahid Halilhodzic’s first three friendly games in charge, and was expected to saunter through its second-round Asian qualifying group for the 2018 competition in Russia.
Reality hit home with a thud at Saitama Stadium on Tuesday, though, as lowly Singapore held on for a historic 0-0 draw to leave the hosts shellshocked.
“After that kind of result it can’t be helped,” Keisuke Honda said of the team’s unfavorable reception as it trudged off. “It’s only to be expected.”
Maya Yoshida agreed.
“It is what it is,” the ashen-faced Southampton defender replied when asked about the jeering. “If you don’t win at home against a team that’s considered to be of a lower rank, then that’s bound to happen.”
“Of course it’s a shock, but we can turn things around,” Honda added. “We’ve only just started and this shows just how difficult the qualifiers for the World Cup are.
“These kind of things happen. Individually we had to convert our chances. We weren’t just taking easy shots, though, and they also defended well.”
That was especially true of Singapore goalkeeper Izwan Mahbud, who had a sensational 90 minutes between the posts, repelling strike after strike with a series of stunning saves.
“They were coming for 45 minutes, that was all I could see,” a beaming Mahbud told reporters of the second-half siege Japan laid on his goal. “I just tried my best to save every ball. I think it was my day.”
Japan goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima was impressed with his counterpart’s display, but suggested that the Samurai Blue need to address the age-old issue of profligacy in front of goal.
“I don’t think we can talk about luck,” the 32-year-old said. “We have to come to terms with the fact that while we were making plenty of chances, we weren’t able to score on any of them.
“We had a similar game aiming for the 2014 World Cup here against North Korea, where the ball just wouldn’t go in until Maya [Yoshida] finally scored right at the end. I want for us to be able to overcome those kind of games.”
Hiroki Sakai conceded that Japan’s end product left something to be desired, but insisted that the side doesn’t need to adjust the way it plays against compact teams that sit back and aim to soak up pressure.
“It’s not a case of just committing players forward,” the Hannover 96 defender said. “If we can change the final quality then things will be different. The important thing is to keep going and have that belief.”
Keeping the faith is not always easy when slip-ups prompt boos, and Tomoaki Makino — who hit the post with one of Japan’s clearest chances — admitted that the players are affected by the expectations heaped upon them.
“Of course we felt it,” the Urawa Reds defender said. “The game was a sellout and the atmosphere when we came out onto the pitch was incredible.
“We wanted to take three points from this game, to play the football the coach is aiming for with fast, direct passes. I think that was on display on the pitch, but the accuracy of the final shots wasn’t quite there.”
The self-proclaimed “mood-maker” was adamant, like Sakai, that the team was not despondent and still dedicated to playing its traditional style of patient, passing football when the next qualifier comes around on Sept. 3 against Cambodia — and already looking ahead to gaining revenge on Singapore in the return fixture.
“After the game the words flying around among the coach and players were that we have to carry this on into the next game and make sure that when we play Singapore away we bring back the three points,” he said.
“It’s not finished. We didn’t lose. Our heads aren’t down.”