(Video of Japan’s goals in their 3-0 victory at home to Oman, the first of three 2014 FIFA World Cup qualification games to be played in the space of ten days)
Shinji Kagawa may have recently eclipsed Keisuke Honda as the most high profile and coveted of Japan’s overseas contingent, but it was the latter’s display in a very comfortable 3-0 victory against Oman which provided a reminder of the numerous gifts that led to SS Lazio engaging in interminable transfer negotiations last year. While Japan will face sterner tests of their credentials in attempting to qualify for the 2014 FIFA World Cup from the AFC’s Group B, most notably the 12 June fixture in Brisbane against closest rivals Australia, coach Alberto Zaccheroni will be satisfied with three points achieved in resounding fashion, and by measured performances from Yasuhito Endo and Makoto Hasebe at the heart of field, flair and precision in equal parts from Shinji Kagawa and an eye-catching late cameo from FC Nuremberg-bound Hiroshi Kiyotake. Most of all, Honda’s ball retention under pressure, diligent work-rate, awareness of space and intelligent distribution implied a man who has finally returned to full form and fitness following a spate of injuries.
Playing in front of an expectant, capacity crowd at the Saitama Stadium, Japan were authoritative from the opening seconds to the closing blast of referee Ravshan Irmatov’s whistle, the final match statistics providing affirmation of a tie which became less of a contest and more of an opportunity for Japan to hone their ability in front of goal for their forthcoming fixtures as the game went on. Seventeen shots to Oman’s one can also be seen in the context of Wigan Athletic’s Ali Al-Habsi being one of the few Omani Daggers’ players to emerge with any credit, the national team’s captain preventing Shinji Okazaki from heading in with a fine stop towards the end of the first-half, and making an outstanding double save late on from first Honda and then Kiyotake to keep the scoreline moderately respectable.
The first goal was created through passing at its simplest but sublime in its execution. Controlling a clearance out of the Oman defence close to half-way, centre-back Yasuyuki Konno played the ball forward to Kagawa, whose adroit touch to Jubilo Iwata’s Ryoichi Maeda was immediately returned to the Borussia Dortmund player. Sending Yuto Nagatomo past Mohammed Al-Musalami, the Internazionale defender’s cross was perfectly judged for Keisuke Honda’s late run into the penalty area, and his technique was flawless as he volleyed past Al-Habsi. Honda’s celebration, in which he gestured to his squad number both on the front and reverse of his jersey, was perhaps a pointed reminder to supporters that he isn’t ready or willing to cede his position as Japan’s most celebrated player of recent years quite yet.
While there was little threat provided by Paul Le Guen’s charges, Japan failed to add to their lead before the interval, underlining that while Japan are yet to be defeated by the Arab state, historically matches between the two nations have been tight affairs, the Samurai Blue having only previously scored more than a single goal in their contests on just one occasion. It would come as some relief therefore that a second came just six minutes after the restart, Maeda furthering their advantage, but the home side were the recipients of questionable decision-making from Irmatov and his assistant. Building from defence, Honda was twice involved in the build-up before laying-off to Kagawa on the left touchline midway inside Oman territory. Cutting inside, the prospective Manchester United player spotted Maeda’s run, deftly bending the ball inside Jaber Al-Owaisi. Maeda miscontrolled, fortunate in seeing Al-Habsi remain on his line and turning in from close range, but having clearly strayed a yard offside and the decision not given it was merely one of several errors of judgement made by the officials during the course of the game.
Shortly after Japan were three ahead, Endo finding Kagawa in the centre of Oman’s half, who pushed the ball to Maeda on the right of The Red penalty area. The 30-year old’s shot was half-blocked, and fell instead for Shinji Okazaki six yards from goal. His initial effort was into the midriff of Al-Habsi, but the rebound came back to the forward who scored at the second attempt. Having put the game beyond Oman’s reach, Zaccheroni could then afford to provide two of his most recent squad additions with some time on the pitch, Hiroki Sakai making his second appearance for his country at a senior level, and Kiyotake providing glimpses of why yet another Bundesliga club wishes to pursue young Japanese talent.
If any negatives could be drawn from an otherwise very positive evening for the Nippon Daihyo coaching staff, it was in Okazaki’s dissipation. While the VfB Stuttgart forward netted the game’s second and his 28th for the Samurai Blue, becoming Japan’s fourth highest goalscorer in history, twice in the first period he let opportunities pass by, the clearest of which resulted from another superb Nagatomo cross after being found by Honda, and unmarked on the penalty spot he headed wide of the right upright. Japan will meet better teams in this group and they will not be the beneficiaries of such largesse in future matches, but with the 26-year old possessing a goalscoring rate of almost precisely one goal every two games, any suggestion that he should be benched is rendered largely untenable.
The Saitama Stadium now awaits the visit of Jordan on 8 June, who could only draw 1-1 with Iraq at the Amman International Stadium, and the Samurai Blue should be confident of leaving for Australia and their tantalising fixture with the Socceroos holding six points from two matches, before World Cup qualification ends until the autumn.
|Fawzi Bashir||9||Atsuto Uchida||30|