Wednesday 07 September 2011

Persistent Japan take four points from opening two qualifiers

Japan made a slow but steady start to their qualifying campaign for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, earning a dramatic 1-0 victory at home to North Korea on Friday before drawing 1-1 away to Uzbekistan yesterday evening.

Maya Yoshida was the hero in Saitama with a 94th-minute winner to save the Samurai Blue’s blushes, while Shinji Okazaki secured a useful point from the tricky visit to Tashkent with a diving header midway through the second half after Server Djeparov had put the Uzbeks in front early on.

Coach Alberto Zaccheroni was forced to reshuffle his pack for the double-header after star midfielder Keisuke Honda withdrew from the squad due to a knee injury sustained playing for CSKA Moscow against city rivals Spartak. Kengo Nakamura also saw his recall after 11 months in the international wilderness ruined by a broken big toe.

With the Italian keen to retain the 4-2-3-1 formation with which Japan had been crowned champions of Asia this January, Yosuke Kashiwagi of Urawa Reds was chosen to start in the centre of the attacking midfield three against North Korea, with Shinji Kagawa moving out to the left.

But the home side were repeatedly frustrated by the Koreans’ defensive tactics, and Kashiwagi was withdrawn for Hiroshi Kiyotake on the hour mark after failing to impose himself on the match despite an energetic effort.

A straight red card for Pak Kwong-Ryong on 84 minutes set the stage for a late Japanese onslaught, and following a number of near misses, Kiyotake followed his pair of debut assists against South Korea last month by crossing for Yoshida to finally head home in the fourth of five additional minutes.

The VVV Venlo defender’s late intervention was reminiscent of his stoppage time equaliser against Jordan in the Asian Cup group stages, as well as the 92nd-minute Masashi Oguro strike that gave Japan a 2-1 victory over North Korea at the same Saitama Stadium in qualification for the 2006 World Cup almost seven years ago.

For the away match in Uzbekistan, Zaccheroni resisted the temptation to field Kiyotake from the start and instead chose to push captain Makoto Hasebe forward, with Yuki Abe of Leicester City filling his usual position alongside Yasuhito Endo at the base of midfield.

However, on a poor pitch that was hardly conducive to Japan’s usual passing game, the visitors appeared unbalanced and soon found themselves overrun in wide areas. Their hosts took advantage inside just eight minutes – skipper Djeparov scrambling home the loose ball after Yasuyuki Konno had failed to deal with a short cross from Alexander Geynrikh.

Hasebe was restored to a deeper-lying role later in the half as Japan looked to stem the tide by temporarily switching to 4-1-4-1, before Kiyotake replaced Abe at the interval to restore the team’s familiar shape.

The move brought greater balance to Zaccheroni’s men throughout a much-improved second half display, and the equaliser that arrived on 64 minutes was just about deserved. Overlapping from right back, Atsuto Uchida sent in a deep cross for Okazaki to meet with a header at virtually pitch level, and the ball squirmed over the line through the hands of Uzbekistan goalkeeper Ignatiy Nesterov.

The manager admitted afterwards, “It was an extremely difficult game. Uzbekistan is one of the fastest-growing football nations in Asia and, as I had expected, they proved to be a very good side.

“As for Japan, our positioning was poor in the first half and we allowed our opponents too much space. This improved in the second half, and I felt it was highly important that this team again put everything on the line to try and win the match at the end.”


- Maksim Shatskikh scored to give Uzbekistan a 1-0 win away to group minnows Tajikistan on Friday, while Pak Nam-Chol’s early goal ensured victory by the same margin for North Korea in Pyongyang yesterday. The results leave the Uzbeks joint top of Group C alongside Japan on four points, with the Koreans just behind on three.
- FC Tokyo and Tochigi SC remain level on 42 points at the top of J2 after a goalless draw in Kumagaya on Sunday.

2014 FIFA World Cup qualifying results (AFC Third Round)
Group C
Japan 1-0 North Korea
Tajikistan 0-1 Uzbekistan
North Korea 1-0 Tajikistan
Uzbekistan 1-1 Japan

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