OSAKA — Japan’s World Cup preparations took another heavy blow after being outclassed by a second-string Serbia in a 3-0 defeat on Wednesday night.
Manager Takeshi Okada was hoping to use the friendly at Nagai Stadium as a final audition before he picks his final 23-man squad for South Africa next month, but two first-half goals from Dragan Mrda and a 60th-minute free kick by Nemanja Tomic ensured the only players to catch the eye were Serbian.
Opposing manager Radomir Antic did not even take his place on the bench as he delegated responsibility to assistant Radovan Curcic, but his players, drawn exclusively from the domestic league with the likes of Manchester United’s Nemanja Vidic and Inter Milan’s Dejan Stankovic unavailable, showed a cohesion and purpose that the home side sorely lacked.
“We had about five new players coming in, and that made it difficult to put moves together,” said midfielder Shunsuke Nakamura. “We were lacking imagination and now we have to go back to basics and try to put things right in the next game. It was not a good performance.”
Okada said he had told his players not to panic if they found themselves a goal down, but was instead left fuming at the way they caved in following Mrda’s 15th-minute opener.
“A match at a time like this is difficult for the players, and we also had some injuries,” Okada said. “But they are representing Japan whatever kind of game it is. The team needs to dig in and try to get the win especially when we are losing, and I think we were lacking in spirit tonight.
“I wasn’t able to take away many positives from tonight, but I did find out some things about the players. When our key men are missing we really need to find some way to work it out.”
Yokohama F. Marinos pair Nakamura and Yuzo Kurihara both recovered from knocks sustained at the weekend to take their place in the starting lineup, with Kurihara winning only his second cap three-and-a-half years after making his debut.
But the 26-year-old’s international ring-rust was very much in evidence as Mrda left him for dead before thumping a shot against the post in the fourth minute, and the warning went unheeded as the Vojvodina Novi Sad striker gave Serbia the lead. Radosav Petrovic sliced Japan’s defense open with a clinical ball from midfield, and Mrda got between Kurihara and Yuji Nakazawa before firing past Seigo Narazaki.
Serbia goalkeeper Zeljko Brkic showed fantastic agility to claw a Shinji Okazaki effort away minutes later, but it was not long before the visitors had doubled their lead. Narazaki saved as Mrda again found himself unmarked at the near post, but the striker was allowed two more bites at the cherry before finally bundling the ball over the line.
Japan was restricted to harmless free kicks from Nakamura and Yasuhito Endo before being booed off by the 46,270 crowd at halftime, and it was no surprise to see Okada ring the changes during the break. Naohiro Ishikawa came on to replace the hapless Kurihara, and the FC Tokyo midfielder almost made his mark when Nakamura sent him galloping past Serbia’s back line, only to shoot straight at Brkic.
But Tomic ensured that the miss would prove costly, firing in Serbia’s third less than a minute later with a direct free kick to cap a fine performance from Curcic’s makeshift side.
“All the players I have here are from the Serbian League, but they all showed tonight that they will be able to compete with the regulars in the future,” said Curcic. “Japan are a team with good discipline, but tonight we were able to capitalize on their mistakes.”