Wednesday 16 November 2011

Japan surrender to North Korea (but are through to the next round of World Cup qualifying anyway)



Japan secured their passage to the final round of Asian qualifying for the 2014 World Cup with two games to spare following a comfortable 4-0 win in Tajikistan on Friday, but their 16-match unbeaten run under Alberto Zaccheroni came to an end with a 1-0 defeat away to North Korea yesterday evening.

The Samurai Blue embarked on a historic first visit to Pyongyang since the Italia ’90 qualifiers fully 22 years ago in the knowledge that the result of their fifth Group C match would be inconsequential. After goals from Yasuyuki Konno, Ryoichi Maeda, and a brace by Shinji Okazaki had made light of a difficult pitch in Dushanbe, Uzbekistan had beaten the North Koreans 1-0 to ensure progress for both themselves and Japan; meaning that the Chollima were eliminated just 17 months after appearing at the World Cup finals in South Africa.

This afforded Zaccheroni the luxury of rotating his line-up, making fully six changes to the side that had seen off Tajikistan. In came Shusaku Nishikawa in goal, Masahiko Inoha and Yuzo Kurihara in defence, Hajime Hosogai and Hiroshi Kiyotake in midfield, and Maeda as the lone striker.

Previous ‘away’ meetings, such as the 2006 qualifier in Bangkok, had been played on neutral territory, but on this occasion a small pocket of heavily-guarded Japanese fans and journalists were allowed to witness a game of football preceded by the playing of their national anthem, Kimigayo, at the Kim Il-Sung Stadium.

Unsurprisingly, given the historical and political relationship between the two countries, the anthem was roundly jeered by the 50,000 home crowd. An atmosphere of unique hostility and choreography ensued from the kickoff, with North Korea immediately bursting forwards and pressing the rattled Japanese defenders with terrific intensity – in stark contrast to the side that had largely defended with eleven men when the teams met in Saitama back in September.

Japan, the Asian champions, barely made it into the attacking third of the field throughout a first half in which their hosts won a succession of corners and were generally superior throughout. The novelty for the international audience was only enhanced by the sight of one of Pyongyang’s famous ‘mass games’ displays, with thousands of North Koreans holding up coloured cards to fill the main stand with enormous messages of support for their side.

The pressure finally paid off on the pitch when the game’s only goal arrived five minutes into the second period. The Korean number four, one of two players named Pak Nam-Chol in the starting eleven, beat Yuichi Komano to a flick-on from Pak Kwang-Ryong and sent a low-powered header inside the post beyond a slow-reacting Nishikawa.

Zaccheroni responded by switching to a 3-4-3, with Atsuto Uchida brought on for Kengo Nakamura and Mike Havenaar later replacing Maeda, but Japan were only really able to take charge of the game after the persistently tough-challenging North Korea were reduced to ten men on 77 minutes with the dismissal of Jong Il-Gwan.

Even then, the visitors were unable to find the killer touch as the Chollima held on to celebrate a landmark victory.

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The Japan manager offered a candid assessment in the first losing press conference of his reign.

“North Korea played very well and were highly concentrated on this game. Because their elimination had already been confirmed, they could play without worrying about collecting several yellow cards, which we could not. The desire that they showed to win this particular match was on a different level to ours.”

Japan will host Uzbekistan in their final third round match on 29 February 2012, with the fourth and final round set to kick off on 3 June.

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The third round of the domestic Emperor’s Cup will be played on Wednesday evening, with details to follow in next week’s Minutecast.


World Cup qualification results (AFC third round)
Group A
Iraq 1-0 China
Jordan 2-0 Singapore
Singapore 0-4 China
Jordan 1-3 Iraq
Jordan and Iraq both through to fourth round

Group B
United Arab Emirates 0-2 South Korea
Kuwait 0-1 Lebanon
Lebanon 2-1 South Korea
Kuwait 2-1 United Arab Emirates
United Arab Emirates eliminated

Group C
Tajikistan 0-4 Japan
Uzbekistan 1-0 North Korea
North Korea 1-0 Japan
Uzbekistan 3-0 Tajikistan
Uzbekistan and Japan both through to fourth round

Group D
Oman 1-0 Australia
Saudi Arabia 3-0 Thailand
Thailand 0-1 Australia
Saudi Arabia 0-0 Oman
Australia through to fourth round

Group E
Bahrain 1-1 Iran
Qatar 4-0 Indonesia
Indonesia 1-4 Iran
Qatar 0-0 Bahrain
Iran through to fourth round; Indonesia eliminated

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