EAST ASIAN CUP: Japan 3-2 Australia

For the second match in succession Japan’s promising young forwards scored three times against regional rivals, this time emerging victorious by the odd goal in five against Holger Osieck’s Australian team. Alberto Zaccheroni’s experimental charges now face hosts South Korea on Sunday, with a win likely to earn them the East Asian Cup.

However, the last fifteen minutes of the match confirmed the defensive fragility that threatens to undermine progress, as the Samurai Blue once again allowed a comfortable two goal advantage to be eroded late in the game, before Yuya Osako secured victory with his second goal of the evening.

The entire team was overhauled for the match as Zaccheroni introduced a completely different starting XI from that which began the 3-3 draw against China. Ogihari and Takahashi anchored midfield, allowing a fluid and attack minded quartet of Yamada, Saito, Osako and Toyoda to flourish. FC Tokyo’s Takahashi captained the team as he made his first start for his country.

Japan had the better of the opening period, looking infinitely more assured than against China, although Australia were strangely passive, lacking in tempo or intent. Sagan Tosu’s prolific striker Yohei Toyoda passed up a number of headed opportunities but linked the play well, while Jubilo Iwata schemer Yamada found space and delivered some teasing crosses from wide areas. Manabu Saito continued his rich vein of form with a superb opening goal in the 26th minute, as he slalomed across the edge of the box before reversing the ball into the top corner to open the scoring.

Japan continued to dominate proceedings in the second half and Osako, of Kashima Antlers, doubled the advantage in the 56th minute. It was a goal of genuine quality in both creation and execution. Toyoda, whom Zaccheroni reserved special praise for post match, received a smart ball into his feet and his flick around the corner found Osako, who delayed until the keeper went to ground and swept the ball into the top corner.

At this juncture, Japan were coasting, creating opportunities while retaining a decent shape and structure against an Australian side who displayed minimal appetite for the occasion. It is however, a curious and unsettling characteristic of the Samurai Blue, that irrespective of personnel, late defensive lapses appear inevitable, and so it was here.

The Socceroos scored twice in three minutes to restore parity, the first from a suspiciously offside looking Mitch Duke, who took advantage of the gaping chasm at the centre of the Japanese defence. The leveller arrived via the left boot of substitute Juric, a finish from eighteen yards at the end of the only real concerted spell of pressure applied by Osiceck’s men in the entire ninety minutes.

The Australian momentum was halted almost instantly as Toyoda again provided an assist for Osako to score from the edge of the box and secure the points in yet another high scoring match involving Japan.

Sooner or later Japan must address the deficiencies that contribute to nerve shredding endings, preferably in advance of next years World Cup. While recent late collapses may simply be an unhappy coincidence, it is beginning to look like an established pattern. Belated concessions have become the norm.

Irrespective of the result against South Korea on Sunday, the tournament will be deemed worthwhile due to the prominent displays of a number of emerging players. Six goals in two games and the introduction of a plethora of talented young players will compensate for organisational frailties at the back. That said, the long term development of forward thinking, creative talent will be hindered unless glaring defensive issues are resolved.

As footnote, despite the thrilling nature of Japan’s matches, the East Asian Cup is unlikely to challenge other global sporting events. This evenings match was observed by only a few hundred spectators.

Chris Collins

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