SAITAMA – Japan got its 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign off to an embarrassing start after being held to a 0-0 home draw by Singapore on Tuesday.
A crowd of 57,533 arrived at Saitama Stadium expecting to see Japan, which is bidding to claim a place at a sixth straight World Cup, breeze past Singapore, which is ranked 154th in the world and has never qualified for the world’s top tournament.
But an inspired performance by Singapore goalkeeper Mohamad Izwan and some wasteful finishing by Japan meant that the game finished scoreless, giving the home side a reality check after winning its first three games under new manager Vahid Halilhodzic.
“I’ve never seen a situation like this before in my career,” said Halilhodzic. “We kept creating chances and the players gave everything to get the win. The only thing that was missing was a goal.
“If we had been able to get a goal, then it would have turned out to be a different game. It’s difficult to accept but there is no need to be despondent.”
Japan, which is ranked 52nd, has also been grouped with Afghanistan, Cambodia and Syria in its opening qualifying round, but Singapore now holds the early upper hand after beating Cambodia 4-0 in its first match.
“At home, in front of great support like this, we have to win,” said captain Makoto Hasebe. “When you play against a team that is well organized like tonight, you have to play faster than we did. We’ve only just started and we need to take the frustration from tonight and use it to our advantage.”
Japan began the match with only one change from the lineup that beat Iraq 4-0 in a friendly last Thursday, with FC Tokyo’s Kosuke Ota replacing the injured Yuto Nagatomo at left back.
Shinji Kagawa forced a flying save out of Izwan in the 12th minute as Japan quickly settled into an attacking rhythm, before Shinji Okazaki shot wide after a surge forward from Hasebe.
Kagawa tried again in the 23rd minute before Okazaki failed to finish off a flowing passing move soon after, and Tomoaki Makino headed a corner wide as Japan began to approach halftime with the game still scoreless.
Kagawa almost threaded the ball into the net despite close attention from the Singapore defense as the second half got underway, but Japan still could not find the target as Takashi Usami wasted a series of chances to break the deadlock.
The home side’s task was made even more difficult by Izwan’s heroics in the Singapore goal, and the ‘keeper pulled off a fantastic save to claw Okazaki’s header off the line in the 55th minute.
Halilhodzic threw on another striker when he replaced Kagawa with Yuya Osako six minutes later, but Izwan again denied Japan with another brilliant save from a Keisuke Honda header.
Honda then hit the crossbar from a free kick before the ‘keeper smothered Usami’s rebound shot, and although Japan proceeded to throw everything at the visitors in a grandstand finish, Singapore held firm to claim a point that few saw coming at the start of the evening.
“If you don’t take your chances, then this is the kind of result that you get,” said Okazaki. “We defended well but we just couldn’t put the ball in the net.”