Monday, 27 May 2019

 

 Asian Cup Half-Empty? or Half-Full?

 Japan 3 - 2 Turmenistan 

Date: 
January 9, 2019
  Location: 
United Arab Emirates

Japan 3

0 1H 1
3 2H 1

2 Turkmenistan

Yuya Osako (56') 
Yuya Osako (60')
Ritsu Doan (71')

Scoring Amanov (26')
Atayev(79')  
Hiroki Sakai
Shuichi Gonda 
Cautions  Iriyanov

  Shuichi Gonda; Hiroki Sakai, Maya Yoshida, Tomoaki Makino, Yuto Nagatomo; Gaku Shibasaki, Takehiro Tomiyasu; Ritsu Doan, Takumi Minamino, Genki Haraguchi (Koya Kitagawa 73'); Yuya Osako 


 Many Japanese football fans were caught a bit by surprise when Japan kicked off their Asian Cup campaign on Wednesday evening (daytime in the Persian Gulf), having just recovered from their New Years' festivities and still not fully focused on the 2019 football season. Those who HAVE been paying close attention will probably have taken the unimpressive 3-2 defeat of Turkmenistan with a bit more optimism than the rank-and-file. There are a multitude of reasons to complain about the pedestrian performance on Wednesday, against what almost everyone views as the weakest team in the group. However, there are just as many legitimate excuses . . . or at least "explanations" . . . . and at least a few reasons to view the Samurai Blue's performance in the second half favorably. It all depends on your perspective, and whether you wish to view the Cup as half-empty or half-full.

For starters, there were warning signs about Japan's readiness for this tournament from the moment the preliminary list of squad members was announced. A number of top prospects were left out of the squad for club-related reasons -- either because the players were moving to a new team or because the club resisted releasing them. But even if we view the initial squad list as a "baseline", the number of dropouts and question-marks has been a source of worry throughout the first week of January. First backup-striker Takuma Asano pulled out due to injury. This was not a major concern, particularly since Yoshinori Muto was called up as his replacement, perhaps allowing the under-used Newcastle player to raise his profile in England.

But the next player to bow out was Kawasaki Frontale midfielder Hidemasa Morita. Morita was already a "backup choice", since his selection was largely the result of injuries to other defensive midfielders who have started for Moriyasu Japan.  In fact, two of the members who ARE in the UAE -- Toshihiro Aoyama and Wataru Endo -- are still not fully recovered from injuries sustained last year, and are reported to be "at 70% to 80% fitness".

When Morita withdrew his name from contention, Moriyasu opted to call back Tsukasa Shiotani, who has not worn the Japan shirt since his U-23 team's meek dismissal from the Rio Olympics in 2016. Though Shiotani impressed with his play for Al-Ain in last month's FIFA Club World Cup, the only member of the current Japan squad he has played with before is Aoyama, his former teammate at Hiroshima. Certainly Moriyasu (as Shiotani's former club coach) is familiar with the player and his capabilities. However Shiotani has always been a bit of a wild-card -- extremely good in one-on-one defense, and very dangerous going forward, but prone to serious defensive errors due to his aggressive instincts.The result is that Gaku Shibasaki is the only experienced, and fully healthy defensive midfielder on this squad. The extent of the problem only became clear when the lineups were announced, and defender Takehiro Tomiyasu was listed alongside Shibasaki in deep midfield. 

If that was not already a big enough headache, Coach Moriyasu had to make another last-minute change when Shoya Nakajima -- one of the brightest stars in the new Samurai Blue constellation -- had to pull out due to an injury suffered in training camp. His replacement will be the experienced and capable Takashi Inui, so in terms of sheer quality there is no real setback. However, Inui has not played with the other attacking members of this young team, and may need time to develop chemistry and an understanding of the attacking dynamic developing between Yuya Osako, Takumi Minamino and Ritsu Doan. Sure enough, Moriyasu opted to use Genki Haraguchi as Nakajima's stand-in in the match against Turkmenistan, rather than Inui.

Despite that long list of personnel problems, most mainstream pundits would not have expected Japan to face much difficulty against a team like Turkmenistan, ranked 127th in the world according to FIFA statistics. Then again, mainstream pundits generally do not understand the Asian Cup, or indeed, Asian football in general. Historically, the Asian Cup throws up many upsets, particularly in the pool round, due to the difficult conditions (travel, weather conditions, tournament timing, etc.) If Japan's sluggish performance in their opening match seems disappointing, ask Australia (who were upset by Jordan 1-0) or Thailand (who were beaten 4-1 by INDIA!) whether they would like to swap results. The smaller nations of Asia view this tournament as a (possibly once-in-a-lifetime) chance to achieve glory, by claiming the scalp of a more famous opponent. Furthermore, as the region develops both economically and "physically", there are few Asian nations nowadays that can be overlooked as potential hurdles to a title. 

So it was not especially surprising that Turkmenistan came out on Wednesday with a roar of energy and bravado. In the opening 25 minutes or so, they ran continuously at the Japanese players, presenting double-teams to anyone who had the ball, and breaking away on the counterattack with the intensity and swiftness of a stallion stampede across the Central Asian plains. This young Samurai Blue unit may have faced the likes of Uruguay and Venezuela, in international friendlies, but it is unlikely that they have experienced the sort of pressure that the Turkmen delivered over the opening half-hour of play.

The response was a bit disappointing, as Japan allowed the opponent to win the ball repeatedly in midfield, and launch some dangerous counterattacks. However, despite showing signs of weakness on the ball, and more than a few forced errors, the team managed to soak up the pressure and prevent dangerous scoring opportunities, with the exception of two relatively long-distance drives. Unfortunately, one of these was a phenomenal knuckle-ball drive from Arslanmurat Amanov which Shuichi Gonda misjudged, and was unable to push over the crossbar. Even after this setback, Japan seemed to be cowed by the pressure the Turkmen were applying, and could not get off the back foot when in possession. The half ended with Turkmenistan in the lead, and fancying their chances for an upset.

The "glass half-full" dimension of Japan's performance on Wednesday came in the opening 20 minutes of the second half. As Australia discovered to their dismay earlier in the week, the longer you allow one of the "lesser" teams of Asia to hold an advantage, the harder it becomes to dictate the pace and direction of play. The Samurai Blue gave Turkmenistan no chance to even think about employing the typical stall tactics or ball-and-chain-style physical marking that weaker teams often use to preserve a result. As soon as they hit the pitch in the second half, the Samurai Blue had their swords out and were ready to start cutting through the thicket of bodies that inundated the Turkmenistan box. For eleven minutes the eleven-man defending held up, and turned away one attempted penetration after another. But in the 56th minute, as Japan's deep midfielders worked the ball forward, Osako, Doan and Minamino all took up positions inside the penalty arc and began signalling for an inlet pass. Haraguchi received a long crossfield pass from Shibasaki on the left wing, and used his dribbling skills to slip between three defensive players. This collapsed the defense, forcing the mass of players clustered at the defensive perimeter to retreat almost to the edge of the six-yard box. As the ball came in from Haraguchi, Osako fought off a challenge from behind and collected it, spinning to his right as he did so. Two more defenders lunged into his path as they had done all night, but Osako kept the ball at his feet, stutter-stepped through the crowd and tucked the ball into the right netting from just five yards out. 

Before the Turkmen could recover from this blow, the Samurai Blue slashed their way deep into enemy territory again. After one attack failed, Doan started the move for Japan's second goal with a nice interception, stepping in and prying the ball away from a defender on the left flank before he could release the counterattack. Doan chipped it into the corner, but at first it appeared that he had missed communications with his teammates. Yuto Nagatomo got a late start and by the time he began chasing, a defender had already arrived to shepherd the ball toward the end line. The veteran wingback refused to give up on the play, however, and with a sudden acceleration he slipped past the defender and managed to get a foot to the ball before it crossed the line. The keeper was caught with his hands down and Nagatomo's flick cleared his head and bounded in front of a wide-open goal mouth. Osako walked the ball into the net, and suddenly the Samurai Blue were in control.

Japan's third tally was a thing of beauty -- the sort of goal that Moriyasu's young guns have been creating ever since the Samurai Blue's new era began. Osako provided the solid post around which his teammates revolve, collecting a long pass with his back to goal and feeding it cleverly to Minamino as he accelerated past. As the defense scrambled to cut off the right channel, Minamino sent his second touch to Doan, in the opposite channel. The Groeningen ace did the rest, weaving through a crowd, squeezing his shot through the first gap to open up, and into the right side netting.

For "glass-half-empty" observers, the remainder of the contest was a concern, and even for optimists it provided a dose of caution. While the young Moriyasu Japan showed a resilience in diversity . . . and a physical combativeness . . . that is often lacking among Japanese teams, their loss of focus following the third goal allowed Turkmenistan to claw their way back into the contest, and set up a nervous final few minutes. Though some will claim that the counterattacking play was slightly offside, Yoshida and Makino both failed to pick up the speedy Annaddurdiev as he burst behind the defense, chased down a long drive and threw himself over Gonda to collect a PK. Atayav scored from the penalty spot to cut the deficit to a single goal.

But following this blunder, Japan tightened up and took care of business down the stretch, to seal the important three points. In a tournament like the Asian Cup, the final result is always the most important factor. Although Coach Moriyasu will surely want to see a bit more poise and decisiveness from his squad when Japan face Oman, this weekend, he will be encouraged by the way his team knuckled down and got the job done in the early second half.