With the Japanese media and public on his back, Zico called up the majority of his overseas stars for this seemingly meaningless friendly against Nigeria. In short, Zico desperately needed a win to give him some breathing space.
On Wednesday night at Tokyo’s National Stadium, he didn’t have to wait long for his first lungful as Hamburg SV striker Naohiro Takahara pounced in the very first minute with a clinical piece of finishing to give his country the first of its goals in a 3-0 victory over a weakened Nigeria team.
The lackluster display by Nigeria notwithstanding, the victory — the first on home soil for Zico — was a crucial one for the Brazilian coach.
Japan dominated every aspect of the game and bossed the midfield with authority. Takahara added a second goal in the first half before Yasuhito Endo capped a brilliant performance form midfield with his first goal for his country in the second half.
“Endo played very well today,” said Zico. “He really took his opportunity in the absence of Shinjo Ono.”
In truth Japan should have scored more, such was its dominance, but poor finishing from the hugely disappointing Atsushi Yanagisawa who blew a few good chances and seemed to be way off the pace of the game, kept the scoreline vaguely respectable for Nigeria.
“We started off really well with Nigeria trying to put us under pressure early on,” explained Zico. “But we managed to maintain our composure and control of the game. We played our own game and we were mentally and physically very strong. This performance was a gift for the supporters of Japan.”
The game had barely begun when Alessandro Santos found Takahara on the edge of the penalty area. Slack marking by the Nigerian defense allowed Takahara time to swivel and crack an unstoppable drive into the top right-hand corner of the net, sending the crowd into a frenzy.
With Junichi Inamoto, Endo, and Hidetoshi Nakata controlling the game in the center of the park, Nigeria was rarely given a sniff at goal and it was no surprise when Japan pressed home its considerable territorial superiority with a second goal in the 39th minute.
An Endo cross from the left was meet with a firm head by Takahara who arrowed the ball into the bottom left corner of the goal, although questions have to be asked about Nigerian goalkeeper Greg Etafia whose effort was anything but spectacular.
A 2-0 halftime cushion and very little threat from the disheartened Nigerians allowed Japan to continue where it left off in the first half.
In the 62nd minute Yanagisawa was put clean through by Shunsuke Nakamura only to hit the tamest of shots at grateful ‘keeper Etafia to put a cap on an abject display.
However, 10 minutes later Endo showed Yanagisawa how to finish as he found himself in an identical position in front of goal, this time from an Inamoto pass that split Nigeria’s defense. Endo steadied himself before sliding home Japan’s third goal from an apparently off-side position, much to the fury of the Nigerian team who got in the face of the linesman, Roy Keane style.
Two claims for penalties and an illegal challenge from Etafia outside the area were waved on by referee Kim Tae Young who appeared to have swallowed his whistle halfway through the match.
A good win for Japan, which will no doubt serve to boost the confidence of the players, but it will do well not to lose sight of the fact that this was largely a second-string Nigerian team.
“The team that played today was young because we had a lot of injuries and many players were not released by their clubs for this game,” said Nigerian coach Christian Chukwu. “Nevertheless credit to the the Japanese team who played very well today.”
Zico explained the need for the team to play as many games as possible together.
“I want these players to grow as a team. We have individual skill but the more these players play together, the more they will be able to learn to balance their skills with good teamwork,” said Zico.
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