TEHRAN – Japan coach Vahid Halilhodzic was pleased with the improvement his players showed in the second half of a friendly 1-1 draw away to Iran on Tuesday but felt a draw was a fair result.
Japan rarely threatened in the early stages and the four-time Asian champions fell behind on the stroke of halftime when Mahdi Torabi smashed home after goalkeeper Shusaku Nishikawa had parried Ashkan Dejagah’s penalty.
But Yoshinori Muto grabbed Japan’s equalizer with a header three minutes into the second half and he was denied a second by a crucial save from Iran goalkeeper Ali Reza Haghighi in what turned into a bad-tempered match at Azadi Stadium.
“Today we were ready for a fight,” said Halilhodzic. “I cannot be satisfied with the way we played in the first half but we made a significant improvement in the second.
“Both teams could have scored more and I think a draw was a fair result.”
Gaku Shibasaki, Takashi Usami and Muto all started as Halilhodzic made five changes to the team that beat Syria 3-0 in a World Cup qualifier in neutral Oman on Thursday.
Japan failed to test Ali Reza Haghighi until the 28th minute, when the Iran goalkeeper got down to gather a long-range drive from Makoto Hasebe.
At the other end, Nishikawa was equally underworked and had little trouble in dealing with a header in the 37th minute from Torabi.
But it was Iran that would make the breakthrough with the last action of the first half after Maya Yoshida conceded a penalty with a clumsy foul from behind on Torabi.
Nishikawa did well to stop Dejagah’s spot kick but Torabi was quickest to react and rifled home the loose ball to put the home side in front.
Japan hit back in the 48th minute when Muto connected with a cross from Keisuke Honda and the ball came off Haghighi and hit Muto again before bouncing over the line.
“It was not the prettiest of goals but I am happy to score whichever way they go in,” said Muto of his second national team goal.
Haghighi denied Muto with a crucial save and then kept out a Honda free kick on the hour mark as Japan enjoyed a spell of pressure.
“I really ought to have scored from that one-on-one,” said Muto.
Honda was his usual blunt self when asked to assess Japan’s performance.
“We are disappointed we didn’t win but that is because we were not good enough,” said Honda.
“I think a draw is a fair result. We might face them (Iran) in the final round of qualifying for the World Cup so hopefully we can make use of this lesson.”
Captain Makoto Hasebe said, “We gave the ball away a lot with poor passes in the first half. It is good that we didn’t lose but there are a lot of things that need fixing.”
Japan continues its World Cup qualifying campaign with its next match away to Singapore in second-round Group E on Nov. 12.
Syria reclaimed top spot in the group with a 5-2 win over Afghanistan on Tuesday.
Syria has 12 points from five games while Japan has 10 from four.