Friday, 08 December 2023

Samurai Sparkle Against Old Rivals

 Japan 0 - 0 S.Korea 

March 25, 2021
Saitama, Japan

Japan 3

2 1H 0
1 2H 0

0 South Korea

Miki Yamane (16')
Daichi Kamata (27')
Wataru Endo (83')


  Shuichi Gonda; Sho Sasaki (Ryoya Ogawa 66'), Maya Yoshida, Takehiro Tomiyasu, Miki Yamane; Hidemasa Morita (Shun Kawabe 86'), Wataru Endo; Daichi Kamata (Ataru Esaka 45'), Takumi Minamino (Yasuto Wakizaka 86'), Junya Ito (Ryogo Furuhashi 74'); Yuya Osako (Takuma Asano 77')


The Japan National Team played their first international in almost four months, on Thursday evening, with a squad that has only been together on the pitch a handful of times over the past two, Coronavirus-plagued years. Yet despite clear evidence that another week of practice is needed before the pieces fully gel, the Samurai Blue squad as a whole played an ALMOST flawless match. There were one or two concentration lapses following the third goal which prevented it from being "perfect", but in terms of executing a basic football strategy, this team played with more chemistry and attacking fluidity than anything we have seen in the past decade. Coach Hajime Moriyasu is spoiled for choice at the moment, calling up a very strong squad, yet leaving out a dozen players who are performing at the top level in Europe, to give some promising domestic players their first NT caps. 

Nobody seized the opportunity more aggressively than Kawasaki Frontale wingback Miki Yamane, who charged into the box from his right wing slot as his teammates jostled for a high ball into the box. Yuya Osako backheeled the ball into Yamane's path and he drove it into the roof of the net, marking his first appearance and first goal at the tender age of 27 1/2. But this was not a game of individual performances. What caught the eye instead was the perfectly-timed traps that won possession time after time, and the flowing ease with which the Samurai Blue counterattacked, each time they won the ball in midfield. Certainly, Yuya Osako played an important role by collecting long balls into the attack, again and again, and holding them up to feed to Daichi Kamata, Takumi Minamino, Junya Ito. He got a second assist with a feed to Kamata, on the counterattack. Wataru Endo and Hidemasa Morita controlled the midfield like The Rock and a Hard Case, breaking up most of the Korean attacks before they could even get started.

The last time this writer can recall the same sort of flowing, pulse-quickening, "beautiful football" from the Samurai Blue was probably back in the mid-Zico era, but the memories that this contest revived most vividly were of the 2000 Asian Cup, when Troussier Japan seemed to hit its creative peak. Oh, the memories . . .

 Anyway, before South Korean partisans jump in with indignation, yes this was a "friendly." And I must say, the Korean team seemed less focused and less motivated than I have seen them in years. Both teams could make a reasonable argument that this was an "A" team, but both were missing key personnel and the visitors seemed to be particularly uninspired. But this is one of the reasons why Japan's performance on Thursday was so impressive. You rarely see a case where a Samurai Blue squad actually outhustle the Red Devils, or surpass them in physical intensity. Rather than sit back and coast on a two-goal, lead, they pressed the Koreans hard in the second half, and probably could have added three or four more tallies if not for some truly fantastic work between the sticks by Kashiwa Reysol goalkeeper Kim Seung-Gyu. Every 50:50 ball was contested and - as already noted - Japan won a much higher share of those balls than they typically do against the South Koreans. Those sort of "bad intentions" are something we also have not seen from many recent Samurai Blue units.

Only time will tell whether this is just a lip, or the first glimpse of a budding international challenger, with the technical flair, the combativeness, and most importantly, the depth needed to actually make an impact at the World Cup. Considering that their first "hurdle" is Tuesdays World Cup qualifier against Mongolia, the bar is not set particularly high. Let's hope the team will take an example from Philippe Troussier's playbook and press for additional goals so long as there is time on the clock. One mark of a truly great team is that they will never let an opponent off the canvas, and will punish an inferior team if given the opportunity. Let's just hope Japan is a bit more ruthless in finishing their chances against Mongolia than they were in this contest.