SAITAMA – Atsuto Uchida scored two minutes before halftime to give Japan a 1-0 win over Cyprus on Tuesday in the Blue Samurai’s last home game before heading off to the World Cup in Brazil.
A crowd of 58,564 turned out at Saitama Stadium hoping to see Alberto Zaccheroni’s side sign off in style with a deluge of goals, but instead a single strike from right back Uchida was all that made the difference against a Cyprus team ranked 130th in FIFA’s world rankings.
Japan now travels to Florida for a training camp before heading to Brazil to take on Cote d’Ivoire, Greece and Colombia in World Cup Group C, and Zaccheroni is hoping his side will be in better physical shape for its opener against the Ivorians on June 14.
“The team played alright, but we had a physically demanding camp in Ibusuki so we weren’t in top condition but our decision-making was good,” said Zaccheroni. “Our aim is to be ready for our first match.”
Match-winner Uchida was one of several Japan players still feeling their way back to full fitness after recovering from injuries, and the right back was happy to get on the scoresheet after playing his last club game for Germany’s Schalke in January after suffering a thigh injury.
“I have been injured and it was touch and go whether I would make it, but I was chosen for the squad,” said Uchida. “I was looking to score tonight and I want to dedicate the goal to the medical staff who helped me get better.”
Uchida made the starting lineup but there was no place for captain Makoto Hasebe and defender Maya Yoshida, who also missed a chunk of the club season with injuries.
Cyprus made a lively start but it was Japan that had the first attempts on goal, Yasuhito Endo and Shinji Kagawa both forcing goalkeeper Panos Constantinou into action with long-range efforts.
The ‘keeper also denied Keisuke Honda when Yoichiro Kakitani teed the ball up for him in front of goal in the 29th minute, but there was nothing Constantinou could do when Uchida gave Japan the lead two minutes before halftime.
Shinji Kagawa had a shot that cannoned back to Uchida, and the right back jabbed the ball in the back of the net at the second time of asking after the Cypriot ‘keeper had parried his initial effort.
The goal marked the end of Uchida’s contribution as he made way for Hiroki Sakai at halftime, while Yoshida came on for Yasuyuki Konno and Hasebe replaced Yasuhito Endo.
Elias Charalambous scrambled a dangerous Japan attack clear as the second half got under way, before a cheer erupted around the ground in the 58th minute as Yoshito Okubo replaced Kakitani to win his first cap since February 2012.
Hasebe saw a fierce shot parried by the Cypriot ‘keeper before Honda blasted the rebound over the bar in the 68th minute, but still a second goal would not come and Marios Stylianou gave Japan a fright when he missed a glorious chance to equalize in the 85th minute.
Japan leaves for its training camp in Florida on Thursday evening, where it will play friendlies in Tampa against Costa Rica on June 2 and Zambia on June 6 before flying to Brazil.