Seigo Narazaki saved Japan’s blushes with a late penalty stop to salvage a 0-0 draw with China in the opening game of the East Asian Football Championship on Saturday.
An 82nd-minute handball from Yuto Nagatomo gave China — which has not qualified for this summer’s World Cup — the chance to take all three points after matching Japan at Ajinomoto Stadium, but the Nagoya Grampus goalkeeper kept out Yang Hao’s strike to grab a point for the home side.
Atsuto Uchida hit the post for Japan’s best chance, but China gave as good as it got to leave Takeshi Okada’s side without a goal in two consecutive matches after a friendly stalemate with Venezuela earlier in the week.
“Obviously we wanted to win so it’s a shame about the result,” Okada said. “But I think we’ve improved a lot and we created a lot of chances.
“We tried to be too pretty in front of goal in the first half and we should have taken a more direct approach. We might have conceded a penalty but generally we were solid at the back. Hopefully we’ll be able to get a result in the next game.”
Japan is bidding to win the four-team regional tournament for the first time, but that task would have been even more daunting had Narazaki not made his late intervention.
“All I did was turn what would have been a loss into a draw,” the 33-year-old said. “We’ll just have to try harder in the next game.”
Keiji Tamada missed a good chance when he failed to direct a Shinji Okazaki cross on target midway through the first half, minutes before Okazaki almost gave Japan a freak lead with a mis-kick that went within a hair of dropping in under goalkeeper Yang Zhi’s crossbar.
Rong Hao then let fly with the best chance of the first half, ripping a fierce left-foot drive that flew past Narazaki’s post, before Kengo Nakamura replied minutes before halftime by stabbing an Okazaki cross just wide.
Uchida crashed a shot against the post 10 minutes into the second half after a brilliant pass from Junichi Inamoto, but it took a drastic intervention by Marcus Tulio Tanaka to scramble the ball off Japan’s goal-line when China launched an attack immediately afterward.
Sota Hirayama replaced Tamada shortly after the hour mark, but the 190-cm striker was unable to connect with a Yasuhito Endo through-ball minutes after coming on.
Instead the best chance fell to China when Australian referee Strebre Delovski adjudged Nagatomo to have handled in the box, but Narazaki was equal to the task with a dive to his right to keep out Yang’s effort.
Japan left the field to a chorus of boos among the 25,964 crowd, but Okada insists his players will improve once they have got back into the swing of things when the J. League starts in March.
“Of course I’m not happy with the result and I realize from the way we played that there are still things to work on,” he said. “I’m not 100 percent satisfied but considering the league season hasn’t started yet, I think we did quite well.”
Japan plays Hong Kong on Thursday before finishing the round-robin competition against South Korea next Sunday.