SAITAMA – National team manager Alberto Zaccheroni insists he never lost faith in his team’s ability to score after a last-gasp Maya Yoshida goal gave Japan a winning start to its 2014 World Cup qualifying campaign against North Korea on Friday.
Japan looked to be heading toward a stalemate against the defense-minded North Koreans at Saitama Stadium, with Yasuyuki Konno and debutant Mike Havenaar both hitting the crossbar on a frustrating night in front of goal until defender Yoshida crashed home a cross from Hiroshi Kiyotake in the 94th minute to snatch a 1-0 win.
But Zaccheroni believes the goal was a fitting reward for his team’s efforts as it began its bid to qualify for the tournament in Brazil for a fifth successive World Cup, praising his players for keeping cool as the minutes ticked by.
“Each drop builds up one by one and eventually it becomes an ocean,” the Italian said after the game. “It’s clear from the statistics that we had overwhelming possession and more shots at goal, and as I expected it was a hard game. I’ve seen North Korea many times and today was the best I have seen them play. The way they play, keeping it compact, meant that we had to be patient and move the ball around.
“There is never a guarantee that a goal is going to come, but I was always sure that we would score.”
Havenaar played a key role in turning the tide Japan’s way after replacing Tadanari Lee in the 70th minute, and Zaccheroni paid tribute to the 194-cm striker’s contribution after being called into the squad at short notice to replace injured talisman Keisuke Honda.
“North Korea played a very defensive game, and it was very difficult for Lee with so little space to work in,” Zaccheroni said. “I had a different type of striker on the bench, so in that situation I thought it would work. I think Havenaar coming on had a big psychological impact on the North Koreans because they had to deal with a different type of player so late in the game.
“For years Japan’s style has been to pass the ball around quickly on the ground, and it’s very difficult for them to change all of a sudden, but I think it worked well.”
Havenaar was also thrilled to make an impact, especially given his late arrival to the squad.
“I got the call two days ago at about 10 p.m., and I was like ‘when am I going?’ And they said ‘tomorrow,’ ” the Hiroshima-born son of Dutch former J. League goalkeeper Dido Havenaar said. “I was surprised that I was going to play today, but everything went well and we won.
“The last five minutes they decided to kick long balls to me. I knew that we were going to win, and I hoped to score. When I came on it was just amazing when they called my name and the fans started cheering. It was a nice experience and I hope I can play in the next game as well.”
Yoshida’s goal came 10 minutes after North Korean substitute Pak Kwang Ryong was given a red card for a studs-up challenge on Yasuhito Endo, but striker Chong Tese was nonetheless optimistic of his side’s chances of progressing to the final qualification stage.
“We expected the game to go the way it did and we knew we wouldn’t have many chances, but we wanted to do whatever we could to get a point,” the former Kawasaki Frontale player said. “We started playing much better when Pak came on. I thought we might be in with a chance, but then he got sent off and in the end Japan could have won 3-0 or 4-0.
“Japan showed they are at a different level to us, but I think we can win our other games and we should qualify without any problems.”