Japan’s feisty forwards bringing the fun

Japan made it three wins from three under Hajime Moriyasu with an all-guns-blazing 4-3 win over Uruguay on Tuesday night, and with the forwards in scintillating form it looks like the fun could just be getting underway… (日本語版はこちら)

Football Channel, Thursday 17th October, 2018

Well, that was fun.

Kirin Cup games are usually fairly uninspiring contests, unfolding uniformly to the drone of supporter chants as new players are tested out, multiple substitutions are made, and genuine entertainment is in short supply.

On Tuesday, however, Hajime Moriyasu’s side ensured the 57,239 fans left Saitama Stadium with smiles on their faces and plenty to talk about after a scarcely believable 4-3 win over Uruguay.

Yes, this was a ‘friendly mode’ Uruguay who had just fallen to a 2-1 defeat to South Korea, made six substitutions, and were without Luis Suarez. Question marks could also be raised about their preparedness and motivation for the game – one Japan player joked afterwards that the opponent might have been out in Roppongi the night before – but teams of Uruguay’s quality don’t take kindly to being beaten, and rarely do they do so by conceding four goals.

Japan came into the game off the back of successive 3-0 wins to start the ‘Moriyasu Japan’ era though, and with the supporting cast of Shoya Nakajima, Takumi Minamino, and Ritsu Doan reinstated behind Yuya Osako, and Hiroki Sakai, Maya Yoshida, and Yuto Nagatomo making their first starts under Moriyasu in the defence the hosts started the brighter of the two sides.

The Samurai Blue bossed possession in the opening 15 minutes, during which time they crucially also managed to open the scoring. All too often Japan teams have kept the ball but struggled to create chances – or, more often, failed to convert them when they do – and Minamino’s superb turn and finish after a crisp Nakajima pass in the 10th minute ensured that wouldn’t be the case here.

The importance of that goal was made clear during the middle third of the first half, when Japan lost their rhythm a little and Uruguay assumed control of proceedings, culminating in their equaliser in the 28th minute when Gaston Pereiro found himself unmarked in the six yard box to tap home after a Giorgian De Arrascaeta free kick was headed back across goal by Sebastian Coates.

Here, too, Japan reacted impressively, however, refusing to retreat into their shells and instead coming out fighting. Osako sent two shots off target inside two minutes as the team clicked back into gear, and the Werder Bremen man made no mistake with his next effort as he evaded the offside trap and tucked home after a Nakajima shot from the edge of the area was palmed into his path by Fernando Muslera in the 36th minute.

Football Channel 19th October 2018

A horrendous Genta Miura error then gifted Uruguay with another equaliser 12 minutes into the second half, the 23-year-old sending a pass back to his Gamba Osaka teammate Masaaki Higashiguchi without realising that Edinson Cavani was still between the pair having hung around to berate the assistant referee after not being given a penalty kick. The Paris Saint Germain star unsurprisingly didn’t pass up the opportunity to make it 2-2.

Again Japan reacted boldly to this setback, and Ritsu Doan notched the first of what will surely be many goals for his country after a sensational piece of combination play with Sakai in the 59th minute, before Minamino added his second of the night to make it 4-2 seven minutes later after another Doan attempt was parried by Muslera.

Gaku Shibasaki, whose well-balanced partnership with Wataru Endo in the centre of the park enabled Japan’s attacking quartet to pour forward freely, was impressed with the way the team refused to be shaken by the concession of the goals in this game, sensing a newfound resilience to their play.

“I think this result will really give us confidence,” the 26-year-old said. “Even though the opponent pulled level we managed to score again afterwards and then move further ahead, which is maybe a little different to the way things have been with the national team before.”

Yuto Nagatomo was also encouraged by the team’s positivity, and looked genuinely thrilled by the attacking threat posed by the youngsters Nakajima, Minamino, and Doan.

“It’s really exciting,” the oldest starting outfielder and most experienced member of the squad beamed. “I think it’s at the level whereby even if I wasn’t called up for the national team I’d want to come and watch the games. There’s such energy and real quality and speed. I think the national team is going to become really interesting.”

‘Exciting’ was undoubtedly the right word to describe this match, and the unpredictability and lethality of the forwards is breeding increasing optimism about the next step in the team’s evolution. Nakajima (4), Minamino (3) and Doan (2) took nine shots at goal over the course of the 90 minutes, landing all of them on target, and Nakajima made it clear that he is not feeling any pressure as the spotlight grows.

“In Portugal I play against the likes of Porto, Sporting, and Benfica so I don’t really think about it too much, just go out there and aim to enjoy playing football,” the 24-year-old said. “The opponent or stage I’m playing on doesn’t really matter, football is fun and so I’m always trying to enjoy it one hundred percent.”

Plenty of issues remain with regards to the balance between defence and attack and, especially, Japan’s ongoing vulnerability to set pieces, but with attacking players in this form and seemingly growing in confidence with every game, the fun doesn’t look like stopping any time soon.


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