Japan overcame its dry patch in front of goal but still made heavy weather of a 3-0 win over minnows Hong Kong in the East Asian Football Championship on Thursday.
Japan went into the match at a rain-slick National Stadium on the back of two frustrating scoreless draws the previous week, but Keiji Tamada took advantage of a defensive mixup to break the deadlock with a well-taken strike four minutes before halftime.
Marcus Tulio Tanaka headed in a second after 65 minutes before Tamada added a late third to ensure the three points, but several chances also went begging against a team Takeshi Okada’s side had beaten 10-0 over two Asian Cup qualifying games late last year.
“I wanted the players to get into their rhythm but we missed some easy chances in the first half,” Okada said. “We didn’t show enough spirit, but in the second half I moved (Yasuhito) Endo closer to goal and we improved.
“I wanted two more goals and the players were giving their all to get them. I told the players at halftime that the purpose of playing football is to score goals. Passing is just a method to achieve that.”
Tulio headed Japan’s first chance of the game wide from a 15th-minute Endo corner, before Yoshito Okubo nodded a Tamada cross over the bar within the space of a minute.
Hong Kong’s massed defense meant the home side’s best opportunities continued to come from set pieces, and Yasuyuki Konno should have done better arriving late at the back post to head wide on the half-hour mark.
Mitsuo Ogasawara, Tamada and Konno all failed to trouble Hong Kong’s Yapp Hung Fai with tame shots from distance, but the goalkeeper gifted Japan the lead when a misunderstanding with captain Chan Wai Ho gave Tamada an empty net to roll the ball into from a tight angle.
Yapp prevented Kengo Nakamura from doubling the advantage with a smart save five minutes into the second half, but there was nothing the ‘keeper could do when Tulio thundered in a header from Endo’s corner in the 65th minute.
Substitute Sota Hirayama failed to add a third when he headed a good chance wide five minutes later, but Tamada finally breached the visitors’ defense again when he finished off a goalmouth scramble with 10 minutes left to play.
China is now the firm favorite to win the four-nation tournament after its shock 3-0 win over South Korea on Wednesday night, but Okada will be holding nothing back when he sends his team out against the Koreans on Sunday.
“I’ve used a lot of players in the last three games against Venezuela, China and now Hong Kong, and it will be my best team that plays (in) the next game,” he said.
Hong Kong’s South Korean manager, Kim Pan Gon, will be an interested observer.
“The two teams are a little bit different in style,” he said. “Korea go straight for goal when they get the ball, whereas Japan try to build attacks. That’s the difference, but they both play to a high level and are both strong at set pieces.”
On the women’s side of the competition earlier in the day, Japan beat Taiwan 3-0 to rack up its second win from two games.