Japan 1 - 1 Australia
On Tuesday evening, the Japan National Team resumed its quest for a berth in the 2018 World Cup, with a critical away match in Melbourne. Although they managed to come away with a point, and thus achieved the bare minimum one might hope for from such a contest, the thoroughly "unambitious" tactics employed by coach Vahid Halilhodzic are bound to leave Samurai Blue fans feeling dissatisfied.
Shusaku Nishikawa; Gotoku Sakai, Maya Yoshida, Masato Morishige, Tomoaki Makino; Hotaru Yamaguchi, Makoto Hasebe; Shinji Kagawa, Yu Kobayashi, Keisuke Honda; Genki Haraguchi
Mat Ryan; Ryan McGowan, Matt Spiranovic, Trent Sainsbury, Brad Smith; Mile Jedinak, Aaron Mooy, Massimo Luongo, Tom Rogic; Matt Leckie, Tomi Juric
Japan may have felt a bit of nerves coming into the contest, despite the emotional boost provided by their win over Iraq. The opening sequences reflected this, as a number of stray passes gave Australia a large share of possession for the opening few minutes. But in the 5th minute a sudden counterattack through the middle tore open the Aussie defense and, with the first significant strike of the contest, took a lot of pressure off the Samurai Blue. An interception near midfield by Makoto Hasebe triggered the break, as a quick through pass to Honda was flicked on into space, and Genkei Haraguchi burst into the clear behind the final defender. Keeping his nerve as he swept into the box from the left wing, Haraguchi waited until the last second before flicking the ball underneath his left glove, and into the back of the net.
This would prove to be the defining moment of the first half, as Japan was able to sit a bit deeper in a defensive posture and force Australia to orchestrate the run of play. The Gold and Green are at their most dangerous on the break, but with an early cushion the Samurai Blue were happy to concede the majority of possession, and guard against any sudden counterattacking bursts. Australia had plenty of the ball, but few clear-cut chances, but Japan also created few really dangerous chances on the counterattack. While not TOO disappointing, the lack of any real intensity by the visitors, during this opening half, would set the stage for an even more distressing second act.
Australia's most dangerous opportunities came, not surprisingly, from set plays. The one drawback of a defensive stance, for the Samurai Blue, is the lingering tendency of defensive players to bustle into opposing players. Asian referees are always eager to award free kicks against Japan at the slightest provocation, and though not nearly as dondgy as some of the calls in games against UAE or Thailand, the referee in this contest did hand Australia a number of kicks in dangerous positions. Nevertheless, the closest either team came to altering the score line came with about five minutes remaining in the half, as Haraguchi again found space on the left and after rounding the corner, dropped the ball back to Makoto Hasebe at the top of the box. But his shot was straight at keeper Mat Ryan, and the contest remained at 1-0 as the teams retired to the locker room.
The second half opened with a major break for Australia, as Haraguchi brushed lightly against Tomi Juric in the penalty area, and the big Australian toppled heavily to the turf. The refere obligingly pointed at the spot, and Mile Jedinak's PK put Australia back on level terms.
Though it was no surprise to see Australia ride the momentum from this goal to a far more offense-minded performance in the second half, Halilhodzic's response (or rather, his total lack of any response) was hard to understand. It almost seemed that he was happy with the draw, and wasnt interested in trying to take back the upper hand. While Australia quickly brought on two attacking substitutes, Halilu waited until the 81st minute to make his first move, and even that was a forced one as Yu Kobayashi had his calf raked from behind and had to limp off, to be replaced by Hiroshi Kiyotake.
Finally, with only five minutes remaining, he brought on the speedy Takuma Asano, but by this time it was too late to really change the dynamics of the contest. To cap things off in suitably shambolic fashion, Halilu used previously uncapped defender Yuichi Maruyama (did I hear someone say "WHO???") as his final substitution. There was never any indication that Halilhodzic was willing to take risks, and apart from one dangerous header by Kobayashi, pushed around the post by Ryan, the second half passed without any real threat to the home team's goal.
If Halilhodzic really thinks that this sort of "conservative" approach will satisfy fans of the Japan NT, he surely has misjudged the atmosphere. Most fans (and certainly this writer) remain highly skeptical of the coach's abilities, even after the last-second win over Iraq. A draw away to Australia might not be viewed as a problem under "normal" circumstances, but as we have already seen, things are far from "normal" in Asia these days. It is highly likely that Japan's visits to Iraq, UAE and Saudi Arabia will be viewed by Middle Eastern football circles as another opportunity to make mischief. Just coming away with draws from these contests may prove to be difficult, if the officiating remains as atrocious as it has been throughout this campaign. At the moment, Japan's progress to the 2018 World Cup is looking far from assured, and Halilu seems to be at a loss when it comes to injecting life into his jaded squad.