Alberto Zaccheroni’s experimental team began their East Asian cup campaign with a 3-3 draw against an experienced China side at the Seoul World Cup stadium in South Korea, having led 3-1 with less than ten minutes remaining. Australia had previously drawn 0-0 with the host nation in the first match of this four team, round robin tournament.
The Samurai Blue, consisting exclusively of domestic talent and with an average age of 25, were unable to settle from the opening whistle as their lack of playing time together was badly exposed. After only three minutes, and before most Japanese players had received a touch of the ball, defender Yuzo Kurihara was caught flat footed and square, eventually conceding a clumsy penalty. Wang Yong Po converted from twelve yards to open the scoring.
Zaccheroni’s stated intention is to cast an eye over the nations emerging young talent over the next few weeks, however the lack of familiarity among the players, combined with what appeared to be opening night butterflies, ensured no one in particular caught the eye in the opening period. Sanfrecce’s Takahagi, ostensibly an attacking midfielder, was forced back so deep, he was at times almost in line with the central defenders. China’s early territorial dominance also meant Genki Haraguchi of Urawa Reds expended valuable energy covering in front of club mate Makino, who was deployed at left back. Kashiwa Reysol’s young striker Masato Kudo was asked to play wide on the right and struggled to link effectively with Yoichiro Kakitani, the lone central striker in a 4-2-3-1 formation.
Despite their disconnectedness in the opening exchanges, Japan eventually settled and Kurihara atoned for his error just after the half hour, scoring with a diving header after Kudo had intelligently headed back across six yard box, to ensure both teams went in level at the break.
Japan slowly began to assert themselves in the second period as the midfield controlled possession and territory for prolongued spells. Makino surged forward on the left flank and delivered a superb first time cross on the run which was met at the near post by Kakitani, who strained his neck muscles to glance a magnificent header in the far corner in the 59th minute. The Cerezo Osaka marksman then turned provider, drifting across the edge of the penalty area and committing defenders before finally laying the ball of for Kudo, who finished first time to make it 3-1.
Zaccheroni, presumably thinking the game was safe, introduced Takahashi and Saito for Aoyama and Haraguchi. While both substitutes have earned their place by virtue of recent club performances, the changes had a destabilising effect, particularly as Haraguchi had helped solidify the left flank with running power and willingness to cover. Saito, in devastating form for Yokohama F Marinos of late, prefers to run in one direction and it is not towards his own goal. Consequently, the substitutions, combined with a general fatigue among the squad due to a heavy J League schedule, allowed China to regain a foothold in the match.
Japan’s late collapse was not entirely unexpected given the defensive instability which pervaded the team from the opening minutes, but it was human error on the part of the Australian referee that precipitated the meltdown. Team captain Yuichi Komano was harshly ruled to have used a hand when attempting to repel a Chinese attack and Wang scored his second penalty of the evening.
The equalising goal three minutes from time was a defensive pantomime as the Japanese backline displayed all the positional awareness of drunk men on a spaceship. Firstly, Komano failed to stop the cross from the left, bizarrely inviting the attacker inside to deliver across goal, then Makino allowed the ball to drift beyond him when he could have stretched to clear. When finally it arrived at the back post, Kurihara ended the match as he started, on his heels, allowing Sun to dart across him and volley beyond Nishikawa.
Japan now approach the match with Australia with a familiar problem, how to blend the creative, attacking promise of a clutch of emerging forwards while establishing some order on a porous backline.
Over to you Zac.
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