KOBE — If Japan manager Philippe Troussier needed to be reminded of his side’s defensive frailties, then he should be grateful to Honduras, which pushed the home side to a 3-3 draw in the Kirin Cup at Kobe Wing Stadium on Thursday.
Honduras took the lead three times, showing how fragile Japan can be at the back. It would be nice to say Japan roared back to equalize each time, but, in truth, the Japanese were lucky to salvage anything from this game.
Once again, the back three of Naoki Matsuda, Tsuneyasu Miyamoto and Koji Nakata creaked badly, although Nakata should not be lumped in with the other two (for once). Matsuda, who is usually the best of the three, was simply dreadful, while Miyamoto played to his usual poor standard. Unfortunately, it is not the standard of the man whose boots he is keeping warm at the moment: Ryuzo Morioka. Troussier must be praying for Morioka’s recovery.
On Thursday, he must have been praying throughout the match, although there was no way he was going to admit that afterward.
“At half-time, I said to my defenders, ‘Do you want to come off?’ ” Troussier related. “The answer was ‘no.’ They wanted to stay and prove themselves, to show they were men.
“And the best response was what they showed in the second half. That was enough for me. Sometimes you’re not in good shape. You just have to accept that. From a defensive point of view, the whole team is the defense. It starts with the strikers. But really, our defense is what I would call dynamic. If we lose this dynamic, you can see what we have in the first half.”
The first half provided enough talking points — well, goals, at least — for an entire campaign of Japan games. More than anything, it showed Japan at its weakest. Of course, Morioka could come back and the likes of Kazuyuki Toda, Shinji Ono and Hidetoshi Nakata are also absent at the moment, but still Troussier must dread the thought of injuries or an accumulation of yellow cards during the World Cup itself.
As early as the sixth minute, Matsuda was making mistakes. A dreadful backpass let in Carlos Pavon, but the Napoli striker was foiled by a fine save from Seigo Narazaki. Despite playing Pavon onside later on (curiously called offside), Matsuda’s crowning moment was still awaiting him.
In the meantime, Honduras, and midfield general Danilo Turcios in particular, were busy attacking the Japan goal. In the 13th minute, Shunsuke Nakamura was called for a foul on the busy Honduran midfielder — it may have been a bit harsh — and the resulting free-kick by Turcios canoned off the wall for a corner.
Turcios himself took the corner and Jose Luis Pineda strolled in — thanks to a totally inconsequential challenge — and headed the ball home to put Honduras up 1-0.
Pavon, a constant thorn in the Japanese defense, had another good chance after some dazzling play down the right from Maynor Suazo and Edgar Alvarez but his shot was well blocked.
Japan pulled level after 25 minutes when Alvarez fouled Yasuhiro Hato. Shunsuke Nakamura played a short free-kick to Hato and then took a poke at goal. Honduras keeper Donis Escober rose unchallenged to take the ball, only to allow it through his hands and into the goal — 1-1. He also had a moment of “glory” left.
But before the 38,130 fans had the chance to celebrate their good fortune, Honduras was ahead again. Takashi Fukunishi, starting in place of Toda and who worked hard throughout the game, thought he had been fouled just outside Japan’s box. So did the rest of the Japan team. Referee Park Sang Gu, who had a dreadful and, at times, bizarre game, was well away from the action and didn’t appear to be looking at the time, so no free-kick was called. The Hondurans, meanwhile, weren’t hanging around and played on. Turcios took the ball to the byline and crossed for Pavon, who had a relatively easy header to make the score 2-1.
Meanwhile, Japan pressed on in attack. Despite the ineffectiveness of Nakamura on the left, Junichi Inamoto was trying to fire things up in the middle of midfield. A 20-meter shot went wide, while an inviting low cross went begging, as did a header by Akinori Nishizawa that was cleared before it could cross the line.
Then luck, in the form of Honduras goalkeeper Escober, came to the rescue again. Nakamura took a corner. Nakamura scored. He certainly looked like he was aiming for it and it came as a relief to the Japanese.
For at least five minutes.
Matsuda failed miserably to deal with an easy ball and allowed it to run to Pavon who gratefully fired it home to take Honduras into the half-time break 3-2 up.
Changes were obviously needed at halftime, but, once again, Troussier refused to alter the back three lineup, opting instead to bring on Daisuke Ichikawa and Alex for Hato and Hiroaki Morishima.
Japan tightened up and while the danger of Turcios and the Hondurans remained — not to mention the danger from the back three as shown when Matsuda hesitated at a critical moment in the first minute — Japan was able to keep most of the play in the Honduran half.
And nearly all the chances came Japan’s way, although it would have been nice if Japan had looked remotely like scoring.
Nakamura had a 25-meter shot saved before threading a lovely ball through to Takayuki Suzuki, who was not having one of his best days. The Kashima Antlers striker broke free of his marker but scuffed his shot badly across the goal. A minute later, Matsuda slung a long ball over for Suzuki and again the Kashima man was free, but his lack of speed allowed the more nimble Honduran defenders to cover and stop the danger.
With 15 minutes left, Nishizawa went down from a challenge by Jaime Rosales and the referee awarded a penalty. Judging by the ref’s other decisions on the day, it was probably a throw-in, but Alex stepped up and smacked the ball into the top left corner to make it 3-3. And, despite three good chances falling to the home team late on, that’s the way it ended.
“I’m very happy about the match,” Troussier tried to convince the reporters after the match. “Especially the second half. The result was not important; rather, I’m proud with the direction we are going in.”
He did, however, admit that the first half was best forgotten. “We weren’t in the match,” he admitted. “And I don’t know why, but it was the best motivation we could have. The quality we showed in the second half was because we were so bad in the first half, and this shows that we are ready mentally. South American teams like this are hard to play against, but my players proved themselves today.”
Seigo Narazaki, Yasuhiro Hato (45, Daisuke Ichikawa), Tsuneyasu Miyamoto, Naoki Matsuda, Koji Nakata, Hiroaki Morishima (46, Alex), Takashi Fukunishi, Shunsuke Nakamura (75, Mitsuo Ogasawara), Junichi Inamoto, Takayuki Suzuki (68, Tatsuhiko Kubo), Akinori Nishizawa
Denis Escober (45, Junior Morales), David Carcamo, Samuel Caballero, Jaime Rosales (92, Junior Izaguirre), Rony Morales, Oscar Bonilla (89, Emil Martinez), Edgar Alvarez, Jose Luis Pineda, Danilo Turcios (69, Robel Bernandez), Maynor Suazo (79, Sergio Mendoza), Carlos Pavon
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