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Japan’s national soccer team got its Kirin Cup campaign off to a winning start with a 1-0 victory over Slovakia at Tokyo’s National Stadium on Monday.

News photoJapan striker Atsushi Yanagisawa (left) competes for the ball against a Slovakian player during the Kirin Cup match at Tokyo’s National Stadium.News photoFans with painted faces cheer on Japan prior to the Kirin Cup match against Slovakia.

The team’s performance, however, will leave Japan coach Philippe Troussier with a few headaches ahead of the World Cup, most notably his team’s apparent inability to finish off scoring opportunities.

Ironically, the most wasteful of Japan’s strikers, Akinori Nishizawa, was credited with Japan’s winner with a goal that would not have looked out of place in a sports blooper video. Having just missed the best chance of the game — blasting into the side-netting with only Slovakia ‘keeper Juraj Bucek to beat — Nishizawa made amends with a good run down into the box in the 38th minute before centering a low cross to Hiroaki Morishima, who bundled the ball goalward. With the Slovakia defense desperately trying to scramble the ball away with any part of their bodies, Nishizawa was on hand to edge the ball over the line from close range.

Troussier appeared happy with the performance.

“I liked the game. It was a good opportunity for me to experiment with the team and I was pleased with the determination of the players,” he said.

The first half started with Japan enjoying the better of the opening exchanges. In the 10th minute, a great through ball from Shunsuke Nakamura found Alessandro Santos down the left wing after he had beaten the offside trap. After doing the hard work and with just the ‘keeper to beat, Santos fired his shot straight at the goalkeeper’s legs when it would have been easier to score.

Nakamura continued to play his forwards through the Slovakia defense, which was utilizing the offside trap with limited success. Sadly for Japan, Nakamura’s inventiveness on the right side of midfield was not matched by any firepower from the forward line. Nishizawa again looked out of his depth and unthreatening and with Atsushi Yanagisawa strangely operating wide down the left flank, Japan had little to offer up front.

Troussier changed things around in the second half, taking off Junichi Inamoto after a below-par performance on his return to the side and replacing him with Takashi Fukunishi. Within minutes of having come on, Fukunishi was unlucky to see his header off a Nakamura free-kick hit the crossbar with the Slovakia ‘keeper well beaten.

As was the case in the first half, Japan controlled the midfield in the second half, with Slovakia creating very few chances and Japan again being denied by the woodwork when Tatsuhiko Kubo latched onto second-half substitute Mitsuo Ogasawara’s through ball, and, after getting the ball under control, skillfully lobbed Bucek, only for the ball to rebound off the crossbar as the 55,000 capacity crowd held their collective breath.

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