After a stroll in the park against Palestine, Japan are set to face their first real challenge in the Asian Cup this Friday when they take on Iraq at the Brisbane Stadium.
It should be an intriguing clash between the past two champions that is likely to decide the winner of Group D. The Samurai Blue go into the game as clear favorites, but nothing should be taken for granted against a side that surprisingly won the tournament in 2007. Javier Aguirre‘s men played some tidy football in their 4–0 victory against Palestine in the opener, but in truth it was difficult to read too much into a game which effectively became a training exercise once Yasuhito Endo fired home the opener after eight minutes.
The game this Friday is unlikely to be as straightforward. Iraq will be feeling confident following their narrow victory over Jordan and go into the game with nothing to lose. Whilst they were a shambles in 2014—finishing bottom of their group at the Gulf Cup and subsequently sacking manager Hakim Shakir—results have improved since Radhi Shenaishil took charge. The return of captain Younis Mahmoud has also boosted what is a relatively young squad and they will fancy their chances of causing an upset against the holders.
With players such as Keisuke Honda, Shinji Okazaki and Shinji Kagawa, Japan clearly boast a stronger starting eleven than Iraq and will no doubt have the lion’s share of possession; yet as the World Cup showed, that means little if you can’t convert your chances. The underdogs will sit back, try to soak up the pressure and look to hit their opponents on the break with a piece of magic from someone like Mahmoud or Yaser Kasim. If Japan score early they should win comfortably: if they don’t it could prove to be a tricky encounter for the holders.
Japan – Shinji Okazaki The Mainz striker says he is focused on the Asian Cup and is not thinking about a possible transfer away from the Coface Arena. The 28yr old has enjoyed a very good first half to the season for his German club with eight goals – he is currently the joint fourth top scorer in the Bundesliga. His goal in the opening game against Palestine was his 41st for Japan: only Kunishige Kamamoto (80) and Kazuyoshi Miura (55) have scored more.
Iraq – Yaser Kasim The scorer of the only goal and man of the match against Jordan: Kasim was a little fortunate that his strike deflected in, but deserved that bit of luck for his delightful, mazy run. The Swindon Town man has been in great form for the table-topping Robins this season and is expected to move to a bigger club in the near future. He became the first ever Iraqi player to captain a club in the English football leagues when he led Swindon out against Coventry in August.
Image: The boys in Blue on the pitch against the Palestinian side, January 12. (nasya_/Flickr [CC])