Japan got its warm-up for next month’s crucial World Cup qualifiers off to a successful start with an impressive 1-0 win over Cote d’Ivoire on Saturday.
The Africans fielded a strong team despite the absence of Chelsea forwards Didier Drogba and Salomon Kalou, but Japan assumed control from the first whistle and took the lead through a Keiji Tamada volley in the 21st minute.
The visitors had several chances to equalize in the second half, but Japan maintained its composure to claim a morale-boosting victory at Toyota Stadium in Toyota, Aichi Prefecture.
Manager Takeshi Okada was satisfied with a good night’s work, but insisted there was still room for improvement.
“We started well and faded a little bit in the second half when the players got tired, but they fought until the end,” he said. “We were able to play as we intended, and we played to our own tempo and passed simple balls.
“That said, we weren’t able to play the ball out of defense as smoothly as I would have liked.”
Okada named Europe-based Makoto Hasebe and Daisuke Matsui in his starting lineup after Japan’s previous match, featuring a side composed entirely of J. League players, ended in a 1-0 loss to Bahrain.
Hasebe, winning his first cap since 2006, rewarded his manager’s faith in him by delivering a pinpoint cross for Tamada’s goal.
“You play with pride when you play for the national team,” Hasebe said.
“Tonight I made some mistakes personally, but I’m relieved that we won.
“For the goal, I got the ball in a good position and then found some space to go forward. I managed to put in a good cross.”
Okada handed a first cap to FC Tokyo left back Yuto Nagatomo, and Marcus Tulio Tanaka began the match beside him in defense despite playing regularly in midfield for club side Urawa Reds. The two combined well to carve out an early chance that Yoshito Okubo fired wide.
Okubo went closer in the 16th minute as he connected with Yasuhito Endo’s corner, only to see his stabbed shot cleared off the line by the Ivorian defense, but Japan’s dominance paid off five minutes later.
Yasuyuki Konno slid the ball through for Hasebe to chase down the right wing, and the Wolfsburg man delivered a perfect cross for Tamada to connect with a sliding left-foot volley.
Japan continued to press forward after the goal, and matched up well against its physically stronger opponent whenever possession was ceded.
But chinks began to appear in the home side’s armor with an unsettling tendency to give the ball away cheaply on defense, and Konno set hearts fluttering when he almost gifted Cote d’Ivoire an equalizer with a sloppy back-pass in the 37th minute.
The mistake triggered the Africans’ first period of sustained pressure, and goalkeeper Seigo Narazaki had to be alert to deal with attacks from Emmanuel Eboue and Didier Zokora in a nervy end to the first half.
Japan regained the upper hand after the interval with Nagatomo’s athletic runs down the left keeping the Ivorians busy, but it was the visitors who came closest to adding to the scoring.
For instance, Etienne Boka launched a fierce free-kick that almost deceived Narazaki in the 59th minute, but the Nagoya Grampus ‘keeper reached out a hand just in time to turn the ball away.
Japan plays Paraguay in Saitama on Tuesday, before resuming World Cup qualifying matches against Oman in Yokohama on June 2.