Sunday, 16 June 2024

November 14, 2019

 Japan 2 - 0 Kyrgizstan  

November 14, 2019
Bishkent, Kyrgiz.

Japan 2

1 1H 0
1 2H 0

0 Kyrgizstan

Takumi Minamino (41')
Genki Haraguchi (53')

  Shuichi Gonda; Hiroki Sakai, Maya Yoshida, Naomichi Ueda, Yuto Nagatomo; Gaku Shibasaki, Wataru Endo (Hotaru Yamaguchi 78'); Junya Ito (Shoya Nakajima 78'), , Takumi Minamino ; Kensuke Nagai (Musashi Suzuki 87')

Japan's fourth World Cup qualification match kicked off on Thursday, completing the first half of the round. Naturally, when you play an away match in AFC competitions, the only issue that REALLY matters -- and the only thing anyone will remember about this trip to the Silk Road city of Bishkent -- is whether you come home with three points. And even if I sound a bit underwhelmed, I should give Coach Hajime Moriyasu credit for adding at least some spice to what was bound to be a rather ugly game. One look at the pitch told you that passing skill was not going to matter much, and with a roaring crowd behind the hosts, securing the win was really the only important measure of success.

The handful of changes Moriyasu did make consisted of dropping the underperforming Ritsu Doan and giving Junya Ito another chance to claim the starting berth on the right, while deploying Genki Haraguchi on the left rather than the slightly hobbling Shoya Nakajima (he came on late for a 15 minute runabout). In the Mongolia match, Ito provided a spark in the attack that Japan struggles to find, in the absence of Yuya Osako up front. The combination of Ito and Kensuke Nagai up front offers a speed dimension that could be useful when the level of competition rises. In this contest, though, Ito was lively but not overly effective (though pitch conditions and "other factors" were largely to blame).

Coach Moriyasu also gave another young centrehalf a chance to partner with Maya Yoshida in the back line. Naomichi Ueda has settled in at Brugge after a transfer that seemed to disrupt his career a bit. The former Kashima Antlers defender deserves a chance to follow up the two appearances he made shortly after the 2018 World Cup (where he was named as a preliminary squad member).

Otherwise, this was the same unit we have seen in all of the first-round qualifiers, to date. I should point out that I am not second-guessing the decisions Moriyasu has made up to this point. Guiding a team through the unpredictable minefield of ACL qualification, while simultaneously building a team that can perform at top-tier events like the Olympics, Asian Cup and World Cup, is always a tightrope act.

I suppose the real problem here is that Asia's convoluted qualification process forces Japan (and other top-level Asian teams) to play far too many matches against AFC opponents . . . and most of those are NOT against the best in the region. When they do get a run of competitive matches against world-class opposition, you can see the rapid progress in team sharpness and individual focus (the best example of this was the Copa America, last year). If Japan MUST play the likes of Mongolia, Myanmar and the various 'stans, it would be nice to have a "B" team playing more wide-ranging opponents. This does seem to be what Moriyasu is doing with the U-23 squad (which recently defeated Brazil ... IN Brazil), but surely the upcoming East Asian Cup should allow Moriyasu to give some of these younger prospects a few full NT caps.

In any event, this was not a pretty match to watch. After an argy-bargy first half in which the Samurai Blue had to take a few lumps to hold possession, Minamino finally got loose inside the box a few minutes from the break, won a slightly soft PK, and tallied from the spot. The Kyrgizstanis had two or three chances in the first half, but Gonda made some key saves to preserve a clean sheet.

Shortly after the break Japan won a free kick just a few meters outside the box, and as Minamino aggressively lined it up and put the ball down, the keeper arranged his wall, apparently failing to consider the angle for the right-footed Haraguchi, who stood aside a bit distractedly. When the referee sounded his whistle, Haraguchi immediately stepped in front of Minamino and stroked a shot just to the left of the wall, which bounded softly into the low left corner.

That was pretty much the end . . . Japan had two or three late breakaways that were whistled dead for reasons that seemed to baffle even the Kyrgiz defenders, but essentially this was just a workmanlike job by an experienced unit, defeating an opponent that they OUGHT to defeat.

Hopefully next week will produce a bit more beautiful football . . . .