BRASILIA – Japan flunked its first test at the Confederations Cup as Alberto Zaccheroni’s side went down 3-0 to two-time defending champion Brazil in the opening match on Saturday.
A cracking third-minute strike by Neymar and second-half goals from Paulinho and Jo easily handed the three points to Luiz Felipe Scolari’s side, which will face Mexico on Wednesday. Japan plays Italy next at Recife the same day.
Manchester United’s Shinji Kagawa tipped his hat to Neymar for the goal, but said Japan did not help itself with a lackluster performance littered with mistakes.
“We knew the importance of starting the match well, and then that happened,” Kagawa said, referring to Neymar’s half-volley from outside the box. “But you just have to credit him on that one; no one could have done anything about it.
“Brazil were obviously good. But we had the rare opportunity of playing on a stage like this and we didn’t take it. We said this and that about trying to win today, but we didn’t even come close to trying.”
“This one is a much worse defeat than the one in October,” he said of Japan’s 4-0 defeat to Brazil in a friendly last year.
Man-of-the-match Neymar was substituted in the 74th minute as an injury precaution, Scolari said.
“Everything’s OK, no problem,” said Neymar, who earlier this month became Barcelona’s latest signing. “It was a quick play with Fred controlling the ball beautifully. I was lucky to have scored a fantastic goal.”
Added Scolari, “The most important thing today was the result because it takes us a lot closer to the second round.”
Asian champion Japan, which was guilty of some shoddy defending, played well in the first half but was left to rue the goal by Brazil’s No. 10 only minutes after kickoff.
On the edge of the box, Fred chested down a leftwing cross by Marcelo for Neymar, who took full advantage of a moment of freedom after Yasuhito Endo was a split-second slow to mark.
Neymar arrowed his shot into the top right corner as goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima could only look on, sending the crowd of 67,000-plus at the Estadio Nacional into raptures.
Japan, though, did not allow Brazil to compound its misery, the defense holding up for the rest of the half, when Keisuke Honda had both shots on goal for the visitors.
He tested the reflexes of Julio Cesar in the sixth minute with one of his trademark free kicks, and the CSKA Moscow man — who is auditioning for a new club here — forced another save from the Brazilian keeper after 19 minutes.
Brazil went close to doubling its lead a minute before the break through Fred, but Kawashima came to the rescue with an outstanding stop off the Fluminense striker from close range.
Japan gave itself a chance for the second half by staying within a goal of Brazil at halftime, yet conceded shortly after the restart.
In the 48th minute, Japan had enough men at the back to clear Dani Alves’ cross from the right, but this time it was Maya Yoshida who was late as Paulinho made it 2-0 with a stinging strike off the palms of Kawashima.
Zaccheroni turned to his bench in the 51st minute, bringing on Ryoichi Maeda for Hiroshi Kiyotake, who he had started in place of Maeda, usually the Italian’s first choice up front.
Endo also came off for Hajime Hosogai but the substitutions were not enough to bring Japan back in the game as Brazil launched the defense of its title with victory, Jo rounding off the scoring in the third minute of stoppage time.
Zaccheroni defended his decision to play Shinji Okazaki, who usually mans the right wing, in the single striker’s role with Kiyotake, Honda and Kagawa behind him.
“The match didn’t turn out like I had hoped but it didn’t have anything to do with Okazaki playing up front,” Zaccheroni said. “I wouldn’t say I’m angry; I’m more disappointed than anything.
“Let’s just say we were made aware of some flaws that we didn’t notice before.”
Japan will now be pressed to take at least a point off Zaccheroni’s native Italy.
“It’s extremely disappointing,” Honda said. “We couldn’t manage to play the game we wanted to. We still have two games left so we need to turn our sights on them and forget about this one as soon as possible.”