Friday, 08 December 2023


 Japan 2 - 1 Saudi Arabia

November 15, 2016

Saitama Stadium

Japan 2







1 Saudi Arabia

Hiroshi Kiyotake (44')
Genki Haraguchi (80')


Osman (90)

Hiroki Sakai>



Shusaku Nishikawa; Hiroki Sakai, Maya Yoshida, Masato Morishige, Yuto Nagatomo; Makoto Hasebe, Hotaru Yamaguchi, Genki Haraguchi, Hiroshi Kiyotake (Shinji Kagawa 64’), Yuya Kubo (Keisuke Honda 45’); Yuya Osako (Shinji Okazaki 90+3’)

The Japan National Team seems to have entered a new era, as their victory over Saudi Arabia on Tuesday evening was spearheaded by players who only recently broke into the lineup, while the three most well-known members of the Samurai Blue (Keisuke Honda, Shinji Kagawa and Shinji Okazaki) all started on the bench. Although all three were used as substitutes, and will probably continue to make valuable contributions for several years to come, it was fairty evident that the baton has been passed to a new generation.

The two brightest stars on Tuesday evening —as in the warmup match against Oman last week— were Koln striker Yuya Osako and Hertha Berlin midfielder Genki Haraguchi. These two have been overlooked for years by previous national team coaches, despite solid performances both in Japan and in Germany. Haraguchi was finally recalled to the team earlier in 2016, while Osako has been out of consideration for almost two years, and got just a handful of caps under Alberto Zaccheroni. He notably broke into the NT with a two-goal performance against Korea in 2013, and scored against Holland the following spring, only to be dropped to a reserve role, weeks before the World Cup. Vahid Halilhodzic has some legitimate excuses for overlooking them up to now. Haraguchi and Osako both took some time to settle at their Bundesliga clubs, and were not playing with much regularity when Halil took over the coaching position. However, the situation has now changed considerably. It is Honda and Kagawa (as well as other veterans like Yuto Nagatomo) who are now spending most of their time on the bench, while Haraguchi, Osako, and Yuya Kubo (who also started this contest) who are capturing headlines in Europe.

The difference between the Japan team that kicked off against Saudi Arabia, and the listless, disorganized mob that stumbled through the first few games of the WC2016 qualification process, was immediately apparent. Not only the newcomers, but the entire starting unit played with an energy and intensity that has been missing for some time. Their intense pressure on the ball and constant running had the Saudis on the back foot immediately, and early scoring chances were only snuffed out by a flurry of early fouls that almost reduced the visitors to ten men very early in the contest. One central defender (#11) was actually shown a red card for a lunging foul on Haraguchi, but the referee immediately switched to yellow, and told the angry Japanese players that he had pulled out the wrong card. Later in the first half, the same player would be called for a hand ball in the penalty area, but again was let off the hook despite angry protests from Halilhodzic that he should have been dismissed for an early shower.

On the negative side, there were still a few problems with the team’s attacking rhythm. The large number of missed passes and wayward runs were an obvious indication that Osako, Haraguchi, Kiyotake and Kubo have not played together prior to this week. On two or three occasions, they either got in each other’s way, or couldn’t decide whether to shoot or pass, when in dangerous positions inside the box. Nevertheless, the number of scoring opportunities was impressive, and one can only imagine how much better this unit will be able to perform once they have had a few chances to learn one-another’s tendencies, and develop their chemistry. The surge of offensive pressure finally took its toll on the verge of half time, when a quick overlap and drop pass by Haraguchi was driven on net first by Osako and then by Kioytake. Both attempts appeared to hit Saudi players’ arms, but  Kiyotake’s drive into the bicep of #11 was too obvious for the referee to ignore. He pointed to the spot, and Kiyotake drove the PK into the low left corner.

The second half followed much the same pattern, though the Saudis had more possession and scoring opportunities of their own as they tried desperately to climb back into the contest. Honda came on for Kubo at intermission, and his greater physical presence combined with Osako’s skillful play in the post to create one chance after another. By the middle of the second half the Saudi defense was starting to come apart at the seams, and it seemed only a matter of time before Japan extended their lead. When the goal finally came, though, it was a thing of beauty, with Honda and Nagatomo playing a one-two overlap on the left sideline to send Nagatomo into the corner. His cross was tipped by Kagawa, slowing it just enough to drop dead at the feet of a wide-open Haraguchi. He merely had to choose his angle and pass the ball into the back of the net.

The final few minutes were a bit frustrating, as the pathetic state of ACL officiating was once again on display. I lost count of how many times Samurai Blue players were shoved, pulled or kicked off the ball, only for the ref to wave play on. With this assistance, the visitors finally did manage to reduce the deficit, a few seconds into injury time, though there is bound to be some discussion of whether or not the ball actually crossed the line. The injustice is bound to appear even greater when this “valid goal” is compared with the goal that Japan had disallowed, in their loss to UAE. At any rate, the Samurai Blue managed to wind out the clock and claim the win, moving them onto level terms with Saudi Arabia at the top of their group.

 Considering how energetic and focused the team looked in this contest, it is going to be difficult for Honda, Okazaki, and (particularly) Kagawa to force their way back into the starting lineup. Even though there were quite a few indications that the starting four Halilhodzic used in this contest need time and experience before they can function well as a unit, their intensity alone makes them preferable to the players who have dominated selection over the past 3-5 years. Unless they start to see more playing time at their clubs, I would not be surprised to see one or more of them dropped from the squad altogether. Unfortunately, we will have to wait until next year to find out.