HANOI — Japan’s defense of the Asian Cup got off to a stuttering start against Qatar on Monday evening in their Group B opener in Hanoi, with Ivica Osim’s men conceding a late equalizer in a 1-1 draw.
Japan’s goal came slap bang on the hour mark after a period of tentative probing orchestrated by Shunsuke Nakamura. He nudged a through ball from the edge of the area for Yasuyuki Konno to run onto and the FC Tokyo man clipped a delightful cross with the outside of his right foot for Naohiro Takahara, who almost produced an aerial Cruyff-turn to finish from close range.
It looked as though Japan had done enough for the victory in the eerily empty My Dinh National Stadium. But with four minutes remaining, Yuki Abe committed a foul outside the area and from the resultant free-kick Uruguayan-born forward Sebastian Quintana lashed in a shot that took a deflection off the wall which wrong-footed keeper Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi.
Substitute Naotake Hanyu still had a chance to give Japan the victory when he curled his shot wide of the right post when clean through, but moments later the match ended in chaos as Qatar’s Hussain Yaser was sent off for a foul on Hideo Hashimoto and coach Dzemaludin Musovic followed him down the tunnel after being given his marching orders for protesting at the first decision.
Japan, looking for its third straight Asian title, drew 1-1 against Qatar the last time they played in the 2000 Asian Cup finals in Beirut, and coach Osim sounded disappointed with the draw this time around.
“It is obvious we should’ve won this match,” Osim told reporters. “Some accident happened and we couldn’t win. We couldn’t finish the match. Japan’s soccer has been improving, but we cannot make the best of our chances. That’s what we need to fix.”
Captain Kawaguchi also believed it was two points dropped.
“We could’ve earned three points instead of one point. I’m disappointed with the result, but I will focus on the next match. We lost concentration late in the match and it should never happen again. As for the free-kick, we gave up too good a position to them.”
Japan plays United Arab Emirates on Friday, while Qatar plays Vietnam on Thursday.
Japan’s opener on the hour was overdue, even though Osim had made his mind up to start in a cautious manner. Takahara was the lone forward, with Shunsuke Nakamura and Satoru Yamagishi buzzing around the Eintracht Frankfurt man. Although Takahara needed all the help he could get in the first half. Toiling tirelessly alone up front is a thankless task at the best of time, but in the broiling Hanoi heat the striker was soon wilting and running down as many blind allies as a Japanese tourist in the city’s Old Quarter.
At the other end, Qatar’s attacking threat was snuffed out time and again by Keita Suzuki, the defensive midfielder with the oh-so-ritzy banana-colored boots mopping up and moving the ball on in his own quietly effective manner.
His distribution — and that of his teammates — lacked its usual snap, though, with the pitch, like a particularly fluffy carpet, holding the ball up to some degree. A weighty wind channeling through the two sides of the stadium also hampered the movement of the ball somewhat.
Chances were evenly distributed in the first period. The Qataris had the first, a 25-meter free-kick from Waleed Jassim that Kawaguchi shunted away from goal. Japan’s fell to Shunsuke Nakamura, after a neat pullback from Takahara, but the Celtic artisan saw his shot from just inside the area blocked.
Shunsuke Nakamura, while far from his enchanting best, still gracefully glided around the pitch much like the famous puppets on water at the municipal theater in Hanoi, flitting in and out of the performance as if by magic. The heat was having an effect on all the players, but one sensed Nakamura was saving himself for later rounds and was rationing his flourishes.
The Japanese were monumentally superior in possession either side of halftime, the Qatari’s resorting to simply hoofing the ball upfield on a number of occasions, but chances continued to be scarce in the second period.
The Qataris were limited to shooting from distance and only went close twice after the goal. First, Quintana scorched in a free-kick from fully 30 meters that flew centimeters over the head of Kawaguchi and, luckily, the bar.
But his second dead-ball effort on 86 minutes was on target — somewhat fortuitously, and Japan saw a controlled but unspectacular performance that should have resulted in a comfortable victory end in frustration.
Musovic, Osim’s assistant when the Bosnian coach led Yugoslavia to the 1990 World Cup quarterfinals, was still fuming in the press conference after receiving his marching orders.
“I regret what happened but I had a better position than the referee. He has to realize the three Japanese players were surrounding my player trying to draw the foul.
“He (the referee) comes in and we lose our top player. He had no intention to commit a foul. The referee was quick to give a red card. It wasn’t a football decision from the referee.”
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