Japan coach Takeshi Okada notched the first win of his second spell in charge of the national team with a 3-0 win over Bosnia-Herzegovina at National Stadium on Wednesday night.
Japan spluttered through a disjointed first half, watched by former boss Ivica Osim, before defender Yuji Nakazawa broke the deadlock in the 68th minute.
Substitute Koji Yamase added two more as Japan found its fluency, but the final scoreline was highly flattering to a team that begins its bid for a fourth straight World Cup appearance with a qualification match against Thailand next week.
Okada knows his side has plenty of room to improve.
“We couldn’t put any pressure on them in the first half,” the coach said after the match.
“We couldn’t match them for pace and we were too slow. We came out for the second half looking a lot better, but Bosnia ran out of steam toward the end of the match.
“Our full-backs couldn’t pressurize enough in the last game (against Chile), and today they were better but it still wasn’t enough.”
Okada was pleased, however, with the performance of Yamase, who came on for the injured Seiichiro Maki shortly before halftime.
“I could see in our training camp that he was in good condition,” Okada said. “I wanted to have a look at him, and when Maki came off Yamase did very well.”
Japan lined up with a more attacking formation than Okada deployed in last Saturday’s 0-0 draw against Chile.
Yoshito Okubo, who had looked lively when coming on as a second-half substitute against the South Americans, took his place at the tip of a midfield diamond, playing off the front pairing of Naohiro Takahara and Maki.
The new formation gave Okubo license to roam across the pitch, and the Vissel Kobe man took full advantage to ghost into dangerous goalscoring positions early on.
Takahara fired a shot over the bar as Japan took the game to the Europeans, but a mistake by Yuki Abe midway through the first half gave Admir Rascic a clear route toward Seigo Narazaki’s goal.
The 2002 World Cup goalkeeper, making a rare start in place of captain Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi, made a comfortable save, but a shot from Mirko Hrgovic minutes later showed the threat from the Bosnians was growing.
Right-back Atsuto Uchida, winning only his second cap, looked rattled as Bosnia began to enjoy more and more possession, and Japan’s strikers looked indecisive when chances came their way on the counter-attack.
Uchida gradually regained enough composure to launch some attacks of his own, stretching the Bosnians as he exposed the space down the right flank, but his final delivery let him down.
By far the biggest cheer of a lackluster first half came as the whistle blew and the stadium big screen picked out former coach Osim, who stepped down in December after suffering a stroke.
The Bosnian’s naturally gruff demeanor could not disguise the twinkle in his eye, and it was not long before he cracked into a smile and offered a wave to the crowd.
Looking gaunt and walking with a cane, it was nonetheless clear that the 66-year-old is happiest in the environment of a soccer stadium.
Okada’s experiment with an attacking trident came to an enforced end as the teams returned for the second half, with Maki leaving the field injured shortly before the break.
His replacement, Yamase, took up position in the center of the park as Okubo moved forward alongside Takahara, and the Yokohama F. Marinos man added bite to a midfield that had struggled to move the ball with any real conviction.
Yasuhito Endo was also growing in influence, and Japan’s effort was rewarded in the 68th minute when Yamase, unmarked on the edge of the box, received the ball direct from a corner. The midfielder drew his shot across the face of the goal, but Nakazawa was on hand to bundle the ball into the net to give Japan the lead.
Yamase doubled the advantage in the 82nd minute after Okubo’s through-ball beat the Bosnian offside trap, coolly slotting the ball past the goalkeeper to make it 2-0.
Japan now had the wind in its sails, and Yamase added another with three minutes remaining after a knock-down from substitute Ryuji Bando to seal the victory.