Japan’s friendly lesson

Japan play Iraq in a vital World Cup qualifier this evening,  and hopefully they can avoid the blues that tend to afflict them at this time of year… (日本語版はこちらです)

Football Channel, 13th June 2017

Last Wednesday’s draw with Syria was far from a classic but, unfortunate as it is for those of us watching, exciting performances and positive results are not the purpose of friendly matches.

If Japan can learn lessons from the underwhelming 1-1 and improve enough to take a vital three points against Iraq in Tehran on Tuesday then the run-out at Ajinomoto Stadium will have fulfilled its purpose.

‘Fan service’ is a big deal in Japan, and the Samurai Blue players were all sure to read from the same apologetic script after the match, but with more and more of them based in the top leagues in Europe they know that some games are more important than others and that sometimes bad performances can serve as an important kick-up-the-arse.

“I think it’s good that this wasn’t a qualifier,” Genki Haraguchi said after the game. “We’re sorry that we couldn’t show the fans who came to watch tonight a good game, but if the players can improve because of this then we have to take that as a positive.”

Hiroki Sakai was also keen to take lessons on board, and knows the fans will forgive drab midweek displays in chilly Chofu when and if the ultimate aim of qualifying for the World Cup is achieved.

“We have to send the people who came to watch home satisfied and we have to pursue the things we are looking to achieve, and so there is absolutely no need to be negative,” The Marseille full-back said.

“If we lose the next game things will become really tough, and so I’m going to do my best to try and think of today’s bad things as positives.”

One slight cause for concern is the timing of the crucially important qualifier against Iraq, coming as it does right at the end of the European season.

The majority of the Japan side now play their football overseas, and the recent draw against Syria is the latest in a series of below-par offerings from the Samurai Blue at this time of year.

On 7 June last year, for instance, the side was out-muscled by a direct and physical Bosnia-Herzegovina in a 2-1 loss in Osaka, while the infamous 0-0 World Cup qualifier at home to Singapore was also played at the start of June in 2015.

“It’s not easy but we are national team players and so we need to make sure we deal with it and knock ourselves into shape,” Sakai said of the need to still be performing after a long and arduous campaign.

Yuto Nagatomo, a veteran now of six-and-a-half Serie A seasons, also admitted that there are difficulties in keeping the mind and body at its peak after a year of European club football.

“It’s the end of the season and so of course everyone is feeling the fatigue both physically and mentally,” the Inter Milan star said.

Football Channel, Tuesday 13th June, 2017

“However, we can’t use that as an excuse, and the purpose of today’s game was to get ourselves in condition for the Iraq match. Of course it’s a shame we didn’t win the game, but I think the most disappointing thing is Shinji (Kagawa)’s injury. Even so, I think today’s game has a big meaning in terms of raising our condition so we are in a position to beat Iraq on the 13th.”

The loss of Kagawa, who has recently shown signs of returning to something approaching his best form for Borussia Dortmund, is indeed a blow, and without him in Tehran Japan will need someone else to step up and fill the creative void created by his absence.

“We need to improve defensively and going forwards,” Haraguchi said. “It’s important now that the players and coach get together and discuss things and exchange ideas.

“I missed a chance (against Syria), and because I lacked quality then the game stayed at 0-0 and became more difficult for us. A national team player has to be scoring those opportunities, so next time I have that kind of chance I need to make sure I take it.”

Nagatomo, meanwhile, feels Japan started sluggishly against Syria, and knows how crucial it is to hit the ground running against Iraq.

“I think in the first half in particular, when the opponent still had plenty of energy, we struggled to lose our markers and link up to break them down,” the 30-year-old explained.

“Also, in spite of the way the opponent was playing, we were attempting passes that weren’t really on and then being caught on short counters, especially in the first half. Against Iraq we need to be very careful, as if we had conceded once in the first half here (against Syria) then the flow of the game would have changed.”

Iraq have demonstrated under new temporary manager Basim Qasim that they will present a similarly obstinate opponent, having kept back-to-back clean sheets in their warm-up games for this encounter with a 1-0 win over Jordan and, most recently, 0-0 draw against South Korea.

Morale in the team is high after a first game on home soil in four years (the win over Jordan drew a crowd of almost 60,000 fans in Basra) and with Iraq already out of the running for qualification they have nothing to lose and everything to gain with a positive result against one of Asia’s most prized scalps.

Australia are also now tied with Japan and Saudi Arabia on 16 points after beating the Saudis 3-2 last Thursday, although Japan have a game in hand in Tuesday’s clash against the Lions of Mesopotamia.

After that Vahid Halilhodzic’s side have just two qualifiers left – against Australia and Saudi Arabia – meaning three points are an absolute must against Iraq. They will need to sharpen up at both ends of the pitch to achieve that, and there is now absolutely no margin for error.


1 Response to “Japan’s friendly lesson”

  1. June 13, 2017 at 6:51 pm

    Sean, I hope Iraq gets up! Plans are underway to get to Saitama for the August 31 clash. Absolutely essential for Australia to get a point atleast.

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