Japan kicked off coach Takeshi Okada’s second spell in charge of the national team with a disappointing 0-0 draw against Chile at National Stadium on Saturday night.
Japan looked uninspired as a starting lineup bearing the stamp of Okada’s predecessor, Ivica Osim, struggled to find its rhythm against a well-organized Chile side.
But the second-half introduction of Yoshito Okubo sparked the match into life, as the Vissel Kobe striker terrorized the South Americans’ defense and came close to breaking the deadlock several times.
Okubo could not make the breakthrough to deliver a winning start for his coach, but Okada was satisfied with what he saw.
“I would have liked to have got the result and it would have been nice if Yoshito had scored, but basically it was good,” Okada said after the match.
“There were times when we were passing backward too much, and also times where we lacked a bit of spirit at crucial moments, but we were sound defensively and the midfield produced some good balls.
“I’m not the type of coach who tells players everything they must do, but if the individuals are not together you don’t have a team. I thought they did have that shape today.”
Okada tried to deflect attention away from his personal return to the job a decade after he led Japan to its first World Cup, but the coach did admit to savoring the experience.
“It was nice to have this tension for the first time in quite a while,” he said. “I would have liked to get a result but in some ways this is better.”
Okada stressed the need for continuity when he took over from the stricken Osim in December, and the new coach’s starting lineup differed little from the Bosnian’s, save for a first cap for 19-year-old Kashima Antlers right back Atsuto Uchida.
Naohiro Takahara and Seiichiro Maki started the match in attack as Okada decided against an attacking three-man strike force.
Japan started the match comfortably, and almost capitalized in the eighth minute when a crisp passing interchange between Takahara and Yasuhito Endo released Maki into the box. Just as the JEF United striker was about to pull the trigger he was crudely poleaxed from behind, with the referee waving away seemingly valid calls for a penalty kick.
Endo and Kengo Nakamura struggled to pick their way through heavy traffic in the middle of the park, and neither Maki nor Takahara could find a clear sight of goal when the ball came their way. Okada opted not to breathe new life into a stagnant game with substitutions at halftime, but both sides came out after the interval with renewed vigor nonetheless.
Uchida came close to connecting with a dangerous ball into the box after a surging run from defense, before Chile’s Gonzalo Fierro caught Japan napping to fire a shot just over the bar. Okada rang the changes soon after as Okubo and Naotake Hanyu came off the bench, and Okubo’s impact was immediate.
The striker caused panic in the Chile defense as he went close in the 62nd minute, then curled a shot onto the roof of the net minutes later.
Okubo’s live wire trickery was causing Chile all sorts of problems, injecting urgency into a Japan team that had been crying out for someone to grab the bull by the horns. But a brilliant point-blank save by Chile goalkeeper Miguel Pinto in the 82nd minute denied the striker a late goal.