It has been a very encouraging week for Japan who followed up an impressive 2-2 draw with Holland by beating World Cup dark-horses Belgium 3-2 in Brussels.
By Matthew Hernon
After disappointing defeats to Serbia and Belarus in October, the Blue Samurai played some delightful football at times, dominating against teams who are 36 and 39 places above them in the FIFA rankings.
Strikers take their chances
Whilst undoubtedly pretty on the eye, Japan are often accused of lacking punch in the final third and subsequently letting teams off the hook when they should be going for the jugular. In this week’s games, however, Yuya Osako (against Holland) and Yoichiro Kakitani (against Belgium) were both excellent, causing the opposing defenses all kinds of problems and a goal apiece will do their confidence the world of good.
Osako looked a little nervous early on against the Dutch, but grew in stature as the game wore on. The 23-year-old Kashima Antlers striker, known for his superb hold-up play, was a pivotal figure as Japan came back from two goals down, scoring the first before setting up Honda for the second. Kakitani was similarly influential in the game against Belgium, heading home the equalizer and then producing a delightful flick for Shinji Okazaki, who fired home to make it 3-1. Lively throughout, it was probably his best performance for Japan since breaking into the side in July. All of a sudden Zaccheroni has some interesting options up front.
Honda is far more effective alongside Kagawa
Keisuke Honda looked somewhat subdued in the first-half against Holland, where he appeared to be getting frustrated as the game passed him by. Things changed dramatically in the second period though following the arrival of Shinji Kagawa. The two men seem to have an almost telepathic understanding, with Honda creating a chance for the Man Utd man immediately after he came on. Their fast combination play in both games was a joy to watch at times as they threatened to open their opponents up on numerous occasions.
Hiroshi Kiyotake and Shinji Okazaki played their supporting roles out wide well, but it is Honda and Kagawa that provide the true creative spark for the team. They will both need to be firing on all cylinders next summer if Japan are to go further than the second round that they reached in 2010. Back then they were overly reliant on Honda. In Brazil with Kagawa alongside him, they should be more threatening.
Endo oozes class
Playing his 140th game for his country, making him the 25th most capped international of all time; Yasuhito Endo made a huge difference when he came off the bench in both games. Dictating play from the middle of the park, he added a real composure to the side’s play. He hardly ever gave the ball away and was effective in the final third, producing a terrific side-footed pass for Honda’s goal that gave Japan the lead against Belgium.
Highly rated youngster Hotaru Yamaguchi started this week’s games ahead of Endo and while he showed a lot of promise, he is not in yet in the same class as the Gamba Osaka veteran. When Japan kick-off their World Cup campaign in Brazil next July Endo should be given the nod to play the deep-lying midfield role alongside Captain Makoto Hasebe. The pair have formed an excellent partnership for their country over the past few years. They may not be as high-profile as Japan’s attackers, but their importance to the team should not be underestimated.
The Defense remains a major concern
Sometimes you feel that Japan are determined to make life difficult for themselves. 3-1 up against Belgium and seemingly cruising with just over ten minutes to go, their defense leaves Toby Alderweireld completely unmarked to head home and give Belgium hope. The first goal that Japan conceded was even worse. Goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima was left stranded, coming out for a ball he was never going to get, Gotoku Sakai should have then been able to clear the danger from Romelu Lukaku’s pass, but he dithered and Kevin Mirallas sneaked in to give the home side the lead. Atsuto Uchida also gifted the Dutch their opener a few nights earlier, putting the ball on a plate for Rafael Van Der Vaart.
It has become a feature of Japan’s game; great going forward, shocking at the back. In the Confederations Cup this summer, the side were lauded for their attacking play against Italy, but still lost the game 4-3. Their full-backs look to venture forward at every opportunity and this can leave the center-backs vulnerable to the counterattack, but that does not excuse basic errors that are being made on a regular basis. If they can somehow eradicate these before next June, they could be a major force at the World Cup.
In spite of the defensive errors Alberto Zaccheroni will have been delighted with the way his team played in the two games. They may have only been friendlies, but Japan showed they have what it takes to compete against the world’s strongest teams. There is still a lot of work that needs to be done before next year’s tournament, but fans of the Blue Samurai will certainly be feeling more confident about their side’s chances than they were a month ago.
Image from WMozzHD’s YouTube channel.