SAITAMA — Japan and Paraguay played to a goalless draw in front of close to 60,000 spectators at Saitama Stadium on Wednesday night. Despite the absence of any goals, this Kirin Cup game was highly entertaining as Japan put on a lively and markedly improved display from its recent defeats to South Korea and Argentina.
Under-pressure Japan coach Zico can breathe a sigh of relief as his side finally displayed the energy that had been lacking from previous Kirin Cup performances.
“I was very pleased with the way we played tonight. I thought we attacked well and were unlucky not to come away with a result,” the Brazilian said after Japan’s final game before departing for next week’s Confederations Cup in France.
“We didn’t win, but it was an encouraging performance ahead of the (June 18-29) Confederations Cup,” he added.
Zico bravely tried to freshen things up, gambling on an untried defense and giving a debut to Keisuke Tsuboi who justified his coach’s faith in him. Winger Alessandro Santos was shifted to left back to accommodate the returning Shunsuke Nakamura and the two combined well in getting crosses into the box.
But the player who stood out above the rest was the inspired Yoshito Okubo playing in only his third international. Okubo epitomized the new-found spirit in the Japanese side and was desperately unlucky to have a deserved second-half goal disallowed for a marginal offside decision.
Okubo’s presence unsettled the Paraguayan defense on a number of occasions and he won his fair share of corners. He also seemed to strike an instant understanding with forward partner Naohiro Takahara and, if his performance on the day is anything to go by, then Japan may have unearthed a new star.
Japan almost got off to a flying start in the fifth minute when Paraguay goalkeeper Ricardo Tavarelli was forced to parry a point-blank shot from Nakamura after a Takahara pass from the right caught the Paraguayan defense flat-footed.
Japan proceeded to dominate the first half, controlling the midfield but failing to produce any real danger to the Paraguayan goal. In fact Tavarelli was only called into action next in the 34th minute when a header off his own defender Ruben Maldonado required an acrobatic save to prevent it from sailing into the back of the net. At the other end of the field, Japan goalkeeper Seigo Narazaki had little to do, being ably protected by Tsuboi and Nobuhisa Yamada, earning only his second cap.
The second half produced much of the same entertainment with Japan pressing hard but failing in the final third of the pitch.
Santos came closest in the 52nd minute when he cut into the box superbly before curling his shot around the lunging ‘keeper but just wide of the far post.
Paraguay’s only attempt on goal came in the 67th minute when an audacious chip by midfielder Carlos Bonet drifted onto the roof of the net.
Just as the game produced no goals, it also produced no cards with experienced English Premier League referee Michael Riley controlling the game with a firm but fair whistle.
Zico is steadily accumulating a bleak-looking record as Japan coach, managing only a solitary win (albeit a lucky one away at South Korea) in seven games in charge.
“It was a meaningless result,” said Hidetoshi Nakata. “We wanted to secure a win ahead of the Confederations Cup. The balance in the side was better than in the Argentina game but there are still areas that we need to work on.”
Still the efforts of the youngsters in the Japan side will offer some semblance of hope to Zico ahead of the Confederations Cup in which it is grouped with the host France, New Zealand and Columbia.
At least he may have a better idea of his starting eleven ahead of the tournament that may well make or break his future in charge of the national team.
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