Japan 2 - 1 Iraq
On Thursday evening, the Japan National Team resumed its quest for a berth in the 2018 World Cup with a home game against Iraq. While the Iraqi national team has been a formidable opponent for quite a few years now, the last time that Japan played the Mesopotamians in a match as critical as this one, Kazu Miura was still the team's ace striker, and the Samurai Blue were still viewed as relative underdogs in Asia. It is probably pointless to remind readers what happened on that November evening in 1993 -- the so-called "Agony at Doha" is firmly etched in the annals of Japan's legendary past, along with the stories of Izanagi and Izanami, Amaterasu and Susunawo.
The decades that have passed since that heartbreaking draw with Iraq have had their ups and downs, and included some events that also are worthy of a spot in football history. For the current generation of Samurai Blue, and even more critical for coach Vahid Halilhodzic, the qualification matches over the past two months have been supremely important. Yet somehow, despite the fact that Japan now enjoys a reputation as one of Asia's top teams, their uninspired and inefficient performances have not been inspirational, to say the least. Up to now, there has been no indication at all that the current generation will be remembered in even four years' time, much less write their names into the history books. But the final scene in Thursday's drama just MIGHT have changed things for the better .
Shusaku Nishikawa; Hiroki Sakai, Maya Yoshida, Masato Morishige, Gotoku Sakai; Yosuke Kashiwagi (Hotaru Yamaguchi 66'), Makoto Hasebe; Hiroshi Kiyotake, Genki Haraguchi, Keisuke Honda (Yu Kobayashi 81'); Shinji Okazaki (Takuma Asano 74')
Mohammed Kasid; Amjad Waleed, Suad Natiq, Ibrahim Ahmed, Durgham Ismael; Saad Luaibi, Alaa Abdul-Zahara, Yaseen Ahmed, Adnan Ali; Mohnad Abdul Raheem, Alaa Ali
The Samurai Blue entered this match with a win and a loss from their opening two contests. This is a somewhat misleading statistic, since Japan's so-called "loss" to the UAE was one of the most ineptly officiated and morally questionable football matches in recent history. Yet it is easy to see how much things have changed for the National Team over the past year or so. For one thing, the visitors showed no hint of awe or intimidation, and immediately demonstrated their willingness to take the initiative. More importantly, the Japanese players seemed to lack any confidence in their own abilities. It took almost 15 minutes for them to settle down enough to begin stringing passes together with any consistency. Iraq even made a few dangerous penetrations into the Japan end during the opening few minutes, doing their best to exacerbate any jitters the Samurai Blue may have been feeling.
Genki Haraguchi -- the early goalscorer in the match against Thailand -- was a surprise starter in this contest, taking the place of Shinji Kagawa, whose lack of playing time in Dortmund seems to have clouded his prospects for the National Team, as well. This turned out to be a good choice on the part of Halilhodzic, as the Hertha Berlin winger teamed up with his midfield partners to open the scoring in the 25th minute. Hiroshi Kiyotake snapped up a long clearance by the Japanese defence and broke through the middle to initiate the counterattack. Kiyotake fed the ball to Honda to dribble toward the box, then swung around the right flank on the overlap. Honda drew Iraq's central defenders before feeding the ball back to Kiyotake, whose cross met Haraguchi at the near post. Genki backheeled the ball and it trickled underneath the keeper to put Japan in the early lead.
This tally seemed to settle the Samurai Blue players' nerves, reducing the number of rushed passes or missed connections in their buildup play. Nevertheless, the Iraq offense continued to create danger with medium-range chips to tall attacking players on the edge of Japan's penalty area. Japan had several chances to settle nerves even more completely over the next 20 minutes, but Honda twice let promising chances slip away by firing the ball straight at the keeper. On the stroke of half time, Iraq got their best scoring chance of the first half as Mohanad Abdul-Rahim charged onto a cross towards the penalty spot and volleyed it on net . . . but straight at Shusaku Nishikawa. The two teams went in at the break with the score still 1-0.
Iraq started the second half brightly, winning a corner kick almost immediately, and then creating a spell of pressure as their back line pressed up almost to midfield. The pressure paid off as Iraq won a free kick on the left sideline, about 35 meters out, and the curling cross was flicked on by defender Samal Saeed, beating Nishikawa inside the left post.
Japan tried to hit back immediately, but as has been the case too often, in recent contests, they squandered their chances. After winning a corner kick just moments after the Iraq goal, Maya Yoshida sent an open header flashing over the crossbar. A few minutes later Hosogai won a free kick just outside the box, on the left side, but Kiyotake curled his shot just wide of the far post. Hotaru Yamaguchi skied one open header into outer space, and Honda had two separate headers that he failed to put on target (if anyone epitomizes the funk that the Samurai Blue have fallen into, it is the AC Milan playmaker). As the clock moved into the final 15 minutes, things were looking gloomy indeed.
As was the case in both the UAE and Thai matches, Japan barraged the Iraq goal over the final few minutes of play, but to no avail. With Iraq feigning injury and wasting every possible second of time, it looked like the Samurai Blue were headed for yet another disappointing result. But three minutes deep into injury time, Maya Yoshida -- pressed forward as an additional attacker -- won a free kick just inches from the corner flag. The kick was headed clear, but it fell to Hotaru Yamaguchi at the top of the penalty arc, and he volleyed it through the crowd of bodies. As the back of the net bulged out, the crowd exploded in celebration -- a roar that contained as much relief as exhilaration.
This is hardly the first time that the Samurai Blue have scored a late winner in crucial World Cup qualification, so it is probably premature to start comparing Yamaguchi's strike to any other historical milestones. Nevertheless, the palpable sense of relief, renewed optimism and self-confidence that wafted through the muggy evening air in Saitama, after the final whistle, suggests that this could be a very important turning point in the fortunes of Halilu Japan. There were plenty of reasons to be disappointed in some of the performances -- particularly those of key players like Honda and Okazaki. Nevertheless, with a vital three points under their belt and an important trip to Australia ahead of them, the Samurai Blue finally seem to be moving in a positive direction. It will be interesting to see if the momentum created by this last-minute victory will carry through to the important clash in Melbourne, next Tuesday.