NIIGATA – Mike Havenaar headed a second-half winner as Japan tuned up for next week’s World Cup qualifier against Iraq with a 1-0 win over the United Arab Emirates on Thursday.
On a night when Euro stars Keisuke Honda and Shinji Kagawa lacked their usual spark, Dutch-based target man Havenaar marked his first appearance for the Blue Samurai since February with the clincher, heading home on 69 minutes at a sold-out Niigata Big Swan.
Japan takes on their former coach Zico and the Iraqis in Saitama on Tuesday.
“The result is obviously important but the most important thing was to check on the team for the Iraq game,” Japan coach Alberto Zaccheroni said. “There were some positives as well as negatives but like I said, the important thing was to see where we are as a team at the moment.”
Zaccheroni opted to start Havenaar up front with Honda in the hole flanked by Shinji Kagawa and Hiroshi Kiyotake, but the Italian was forced to field a makeshift back four in the absence of suspended trio Atsuto Uchida, Yasuyuki Konno and Yuzo Kurihara.
With Yuto Nagatomo nursing a sore right ankle and starting on the bench, Yuichi Komano switched to left back and Hiroki Sakai started on the right of the central pairing of London Olympic captain Maya Yoshida and Masahiko Inoha.
Honda has been in outstanding form for Japan in the final qualifying round for Brazil and the CSKA Moscow star nearly got on the scoresheet with the game only 70 seconds old, fizzing a shot just over the bar after Kagawa backheeled Kiyotake’s pass into the box.
The UAE, who failed to reach the final qualifying phase and were fielding the bulk of their London Olympic squad, had the first shot on goal but Eiji Kawashima was alert to deal with Rashed Eisa’s low drive and then got down well to block Ahmed Khalil on 18 minutes.
In a largely uninspiring first period, Inoha, Havenaar and Kagawa all went close as Japan threatened in fits and starts but again the Asian champions were indebted to Kawashima, the Standard Liege custodian for showing a safe pair of hands to deal with a fierce effort from Khamis Esmaeel.
Zaccheroni rang the changes at halftime, taking off Kagawa for Shinji Okazaki and replacing captain Makoto Hasebe with Hajime Hosogai and Inoha with Hiroki Mizumoto.
The switch, however, did little to make a significant impact on the complexion of the game although Yasuhito Endo stung Ali Khaseif’s palms midway through the second period.
Havenaar, though, finally broke the deadlock with the simplest of headers, nodding in his third national team goal in seven appearances after Khaseif had misjudged a leftwing cross from Komano.
“I’m a little relieved to be honest because I haven’t gotten the job done lately,” Havenaar said. “But what matters is the next match.”
Japan are currently five points clear of Iraq, Australia and Jordan in Group B, having beaten Oman 3-0 and Jordan 6-0 before drawing 1-1 away with the Socceroos.