SAITAMA — Zico’s farewell party fizzled out at a rain-lashed Saitama Stadium on Saturday as Scotland held Japan to a 0-0 draw and clinched the Kirin Cup.
The Boys in Blue needed to win by three clear goals to win the tournament in what was Zico’s final home match in charge and Japan’s last home game before heading to the World Cup, but despite creating numerous chances were unable score past excellent Scotland ‘keeper Neil Alexander.
Alex Santos nearly gave Japan victory in injury time with a curling free-kick from the edge of the area, but man-of-the-match Alexander got down quickly to his right and turned the ball around the post as the 58,648 crowd drew its collective breath.
“It didn’t feel like the last game in Japan for me, even though I know it is — it hasn’t sunk in yet,” Japan coach Zico said. “But our performance was very good even though we didn’t win. We really wanted to win to give the fans something before the World Cup.”
Scotland manager Walter Smith was impressed by Japan’s attacking verve and considered the home side unfortunate not to score.
“Japan played very well — we were able to make it difficult for them by getting players behind the ball and they maybe lacked that little bit of luck you need around the goal,” Smith said.
Japan faced an uphill task to win the competition after losing 2-1 to Bulgaria in the Kirin Cup opener while Scotland thrashed the competition’s third team 5-1, and the weather didn’t help the home side, the freezing May mist enveloping the stadium more likely to be found in Scottish Highlands than Saitama.
Zico had hoped prior to the match that his players would be more positive in front of goal in pursuit of the three-goal margin of victory they needed and Yasuhito Endo set the tone five minutes in when he let fly with a speculative effort from the 30 meters that flew over the bar.
Japan went closer to getting the first goal on 24 minutes when right-back Akira Kaji cut inside 25 meters out and launched a left-foot screamer that crashed against Alexander’s upright and into the path of Tatsuhiko Kubo lurking around the penalty spot, but the forward’s first-time effort sailed over the bar.
Scotland was rarely able to keep the ball in Japan’s half for any length of time, with the home side maintaining an impressive high-tempo approach to the proceedings. The visitors appeared sluggish, their excellent performance against the Bulgarians perhaps taking a little bit out of them.
“It was always going to be a difficult game as we played just over 48 hours ago,” manager Smith said. “We were made to defend for most of the game and only had two or three chances, but we managed to hold on through good goalkeeping and defending from the whole team.”
A Scottish fan added a touch of Britishness to the proceedings midway through the first half when a toilet roll was thrown onto the pitch to the bemusement of the Japanese fans who had almost certainly never seen anything of the sort before.
Moments later, Mitsuo Ogasawara tested Alexander twice in a minute, forcing a save from the ‘keeper after his shot from the edge of the area before turning inside Manchester United’s Darren Fletcher seconds later and hitting a rising drive from 20 meters that drew a fine save.
Zico names his final World Cup squad on Monday — the deadline for all countries competing in Germany — before Japan heads to the J-Village facilities in Fukushima on May 17 for a weeklong camp. The Boys in Blue leave on May 26 for Germany, where it plays the host country in a friendly on May 30 and Malta on June 4.
Japan’s first opponent in World Cup Group F is Australia in Kaiserslautern on June 12. It then plays Croatia on June 18 and Brazil June 22 in its other group matches.