Japan brushed aside Montenegro 2-0 in their Kirin Cup opener at Shizuoka Ecopa Stadium on Friday evening. Yuji Nakazawa and Naohiro Takahara’s first-half goals set up a second-half stroll in the park for Ivica Osim’s men, giving them a boost ahead of July’s Asian Cup finals.
Nakazawa and Takahara scored impressive headers on 23 and 38 minutes, the first from the left, the second from the right, to wrap up the result early against a lackluster Montenegrin side and put an uncharacteristic smile on the face of Coach Osim.
“It is hard to win, especially the first game of the Kirin Cup, so I am pleased with the result,” said a beaming Osim, before checking himself. “I was happy at what I saw in the first half but later some played for themselves so that made me less happy.” Japan, which played before a small crowd of 28,365 on Friday, takes on Colombia on Tuesday in its final Kirin Cup match, with Montenegro facing the Colombians on Sunday. Tuesday’s match at Saitama is Japan’s last scheduled game before the July 7-29 Asian Cup in Southeast Asia.
After a stop-start beginning to proceedings in Fukuroi, Shizuoka Prefecture, when neither side enjoyed a significant advantage, Japan took the lead from the unlikeliest of outlets.
Midfielder Yasuhito Endo looped in a deep cross from the left and Yokohama F. Marinos central defender Nakazawa, loitering at the back post, hung in the air long enough to direct a header over the outstretched arm of ‘keeper Vukasin Poleksic.
“It was a great cross from Endo and it was the perfect time for us to score,” said Nakazawa. “I was pleased with the game and I was just pleased we could carry on and win the game.”
Montenegro’s Milan Purovic threatened to equalize immediately after when he collected a pass when driving through the Japan defense, but was flagged offside before he could let fly. But this was the sum total of the Montenegrins’ first-half threat.
Japan began to enjoy the lion’s share of possession after the opener, but although the slick approach play promised much, the end product left much to be desired.
This all changed, though, with a move leading to the second goal devastating in its simplicity. Kawasaki Frontale’s Kengo Nakamura — his namesake Shunsuke reduced to a spectator role nursing a foot injury — gathered possession on the left and sprayed a languid pass across the pitch to Yuichi Komano. Sanfrecce Hiroshima’s Komano whipped in a right-wing cross, which begged Takahara to attack the ball with a header. The Eintracht Frankfurt forward obliged, launching himself at the ball and crashing it past Poleksic.
“I am happy that I played and scored today and it is important to keep the momentum going as a team,” said Takahara.
“This was my first time playing with (fellow forward Kisho) Yano and I think we played well off each other.”
Osim may have sat stony faced on the bench, belying his reaction at the end, but even he must have been tempted to cheer the fare-on offer as his team pulsed with confidence in the last minutes of the first half.
Japan appeared to be relying on Komano’s accuracy with his crosses and the next delivery from the right-sided player nearly brought a third goal.
JEF United Chiba’s Satoru Yamagishi met the cross with a brilliant header but the busy Poleksic tipped it over brilliantly.
The second half started at something approaching a training-ground pace as neither team felt it necessary — what with the result all but decided — to launch into any full-blooded tackles.
But Gamba Osaka’s Endo grabbed the baffle on 50 minutes and momentarily breathed life into the dying embers of the game with a cutting drive from the edge of the area that Poleksic had to beat away with a two-handed lunge. Seconds later, Nakamura curled the ball from similar range over the bar.
Osim’s men were hungry for a confidence-boosting third goal, no doubt about it, but for all their possession and clever play it wouldn’t come.
Out of the blue, though, Montenegro had a glorious chance to pull a goal back when Takahara tripped Igor Burzanovic in the penalty area, the referee immediately pointing to the penalty spot. But Burzanovic stepped up and dragged his shot wide of ‘keeper Seigo Narazaki’s right-hand post.