Japan manager Takeshi Okada’s assertion that there was “no problem yet” after his side had drawn 1-1 at home to Uzbekistan in Wednesday night’s World Cup qualifier drew hoots of derision from many watching the match, but as a sound bite it neatly summed up the national team’s philosophy.
Japan, wholeheartedly devoted to a passing game big on patient technique but short on decisive urgency, showed once again that such an attitude can be a mixed blessing.
On the one hand there was Shunsuke Nakamura, almost single-handedly dismantling the Uzbek defense with an extraordinary range of passes, creating chance after chance as Japan pushed for an equalizer to Maksim Shatskikh’s first-half opener.
On the other there was right-back Atsuto Uchida galloping into the box with the goal at his mercy, only to succumb to the temptation of making one more pass and sliding the ball frustratingly out of reach of Shinji Kagawa.
Uzbekistan manager Mirdjalal Kasimov nonetheless praised Japan for its dedication to the passing game after the match.
“The Japanese way of attack is more effective than that of Qatar or Australia,” he said. “Australia play a very English style down the sides, whereas Japan are very strong in the middle. They control the ball all the time, and personally I like the Japanese way of play better.”
Unfortunately for Kasimov, Australia and Qatar actually managed to beat Uzbekistan.
Whatever the pros and cons of Japan’s style, Okada was certainly not helped by a number of poor performances from his big names.
Center-backs Marcus Tulio Tanaka and Yuji Nakazawa, usually Japan’s most dependable players, both had a shocking night, looking vulnerable in defense and uncharacteristically nervous in possession.
Yasuhito Endo looked short of imagination in the deep-lying playmaker role he usually excels in, while Yuki Abe also had a rare off-night at left-back.
Newcomers such as Kagawa also struggled, and despite a few nice touches, the 19-year-old looked out of his depth in a match that was too important to be learning as he went along.
In contrast to recent games, it was the strikers who led the way.
Keiji Tamada has held on to his position because there is no one better to lead the line, but the Nagoya Grampus man was full of purpose and intent, and capped a fine showing with his first goal in nine games.
Tamada and Yoshito Okubo may have missed chances, but it is a curious feature of this Japan team that the pair shone after having such a torrid time in last week’s friendly against the United Arab Emirates.
Consistency has never been one of Japan’s strong points.
Also complicating matters was a complete about-turn in Uzbekistan’s fortunes.
The Central Asian side had been hotly tipped coming into the final round of qualifiers, but began with a surprising 3-0 loss to Qatar before going down 1-0 to Australia.
Uzbekistan prepared for Wednesday’s match with another defeat, 3-0 against South Korea in a friendly, but looked like a team transformed at Saitama Stadium.
Shatskikh played more like the striker that had been expected to fill Andriy Shevchenko’s boots at Dynamo Kyiv almost a decade ago, while midfielder Timur Kapadze and defender Vitaliy Densiov’s performances suggested Uzbekistan may not be dead and buried in Group A yet.
That Qatar, 4-0 losers against Australia on Wednesday night, managed to beat the Uzbeks 3-0 on the first day’s play suggests the group will not be as straightforward as initially predicted.
Bahrain has proved to be a thorn in Japan’s side throughout this qualifying campaign, and Okada’s team has yet to take on Australia in matches that now take on even greater significance in light of Wednesday’s dropped points.
Okada knows full well that qualification will not be easy, and four points from the opening two games can hardly be considered a disaster. But the importance of getting off to a good start cannot be overestimated, and the chance to establish a cushion at the top alongside Australia has now slipped through Japan’s fingers.
Okada may be right in saying it is not yet time to panic, but neither is there room to breathe. If Japan does not win its next match next month in Qatar, the pressure may yet asphyxiate all chances of automatic qualification.