KOBE — Japan warmed up for next week’s crunch World Cup qualifier against Qatar with a straightforward 3-1 friendly win over Syria on Thursday night.
Takeshi Okada’s weakened side, missing Europe-based players as well as Gamba Osaka’s Asian Champions League-winners, took a third-minute lead through Yuto Nagatomo before Keiji Tamada doubled the advantage in the 26th minute with a well-taken volley.
Yoshito Okubo added another in front of his home crowd at Kobe’s Home’s Stadium, before Mohamad Alzino pulled one back from the penalty spot for a limited Syrian side which nonetheless gave Japan a nervy final 10 minutes after a rash of substitutions from both teams.
After dropping qualifying points at home to Uzbekistan last month, Okada was keen to toughen his players up ahead of Wednesday’s match in Doha.
“In the game against Uzbekistan we had problems matching up to them, so I wanted the players to fight for the ball and show their strength, and I’m satisfied that they did that,” he said.
“There are some things that we set out to do that we weren’t able to manage tonight, but we played as a team and didn’t get any injuries. We pressured them and our attack played well together, and that stayed the same even after the substitutions.”
But after seeing the Syrians make a late comeback worryingly reminiscent of Japan’s earlier World Cup qualifier against Bahrain — where the Gulf side scored two goals in the final minutes — Okada is taking nothing for granted.
“The good things we did tonight don’t guarantee us anything against Qatar,” he cautioned. “You can’t afford to drop any games in the World Cup qualifiers.”
Okada fielded an attacking lineup, with Shinji Okazaki and Okubo flanking strikers Tamada and Tatsuya Tanaka, but with all four granted the freedom to switch positions along the front line. Shuhei Terada replaced the injured Yuji Nakazawa alongside Marcus Tulio Tanaka in central defense, while Yuki Abe started in midfield alongside Kengo Nakamura.
The chances of a competitive match looked slim almost as soon as it had begun when Nagatomo picked up the ball just inside the Syrian half, then proceeded to drive toward goal with four defenders all standing off, practically begging him to take a shot. Nagatomo duly obliged, drilling a right-footed effort past ‘keeper Mosab Balhous for his first international goal.
After Terada had a header cleared off the line and Okazaki had wasted two good chances, Tamada applied a more clinical touch. Nakamura flighted a delicate cross toward the unmarked Nagoya Grampus striker at the back post, and Tamada kept his cool to hit a side-foot volley into the net.
Okada rang the changes with three substitutions at halftime, and Shinji Kagawa almost made an immediate impact as he attempted a lob over Balhous from distance. Kagawa got too clever for his own good soon after, however, when he again tried to chip the ‘keeper with a simple shot looking by far the better option.
Okubo did finally manage to lift the ball over Balhous’ head and into the net, but it needed some help in doing so. The striker collected a pass from Nagatomo before letting fly with a shot that took a wicked deflection off Abd Alkader Dakka, before looping up and over the helpless ‘keeper for Japan’s third goal.
But Syria was given an unlikely chance to get back into the game when a flowing surge forward ended in a penalty award for a trip by Kagawa. Alzino made no mistake, sending Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi the wrong way from the spot.
Syria, sparked by substitute Mahmoud Alamna, pushed hard for more, but Japan held firm to see out the match and head to Qatar on the back of a win.