SAITAMA – Shunsuke Nakamura’s return to international action was not enough to inspire Japan to victory as Takeshi Okada’s men labored to a 0-0 draw with Paraguay on Tuesday night.
Japan put in a ponderous, insipid display in stark contrast to last Saturday’s vibrant 1-0 win over Cote d’Ivoire, and although Daisuke Matsui’s half-time appearance added some urgency to a team that had virtually sleepwalked through the first 45 minutes, scoring chances were at a premium.
The draw at Saitama Stadium was enough for Japan to claim first place in the three-team Kirin Cup tournament, but Okada was more concerned about next month’s four World Cup qualifying matches.
“The players hadn’t played together much before the match, and although gradually we were able to keep hold of the ball in defense, we didn’t have many chances on goal,” he said.
“Of course we wanted to win this tournament, but we are really looking ahead to the World Cup qualifying games. That’s what we are focused on, and we can’t afford to lose those games.”
Nakamura, playing his first match in a blue shirt since September last year, acknowledged the team has much to work on.
“First I had to get used to playing in this team and get a feel for the team concept, then bring my own ideas and technical ability,” he said. “The first half was OK, but we didn’t link up too well in the second half. Everyone was playing their own individual game rather than playing as a team.
If that hadn’t happened, we wouldn’t have given the ball away so much.”
Okada made seven changes to the side that beat Cote d’Ivoire, handing a first cap to 32-year-old Kawasaki Frontale defender Shuhei Terada. But there was no place for Naohiro Takahara as Seiichiro Maki started the match as the lone striker in front of a five-man midfield.
Japan created the best chances of a cagey opening period, with Koji Yamase stumbling when through on goal in the 6th minute, and Tulio heading straight at Paraguay goalkeeper Derlis Gomez 10 minutes later after a raking cross from Nakamura.
But the home side failed to capitalize on its early dominance, and Paraguay began to see more of the ball without really threatening Seigo Narazaki in the Japanese goal.
Dario Veron went close in the 40th minute, however, blazing his shot over the bar as the first half livened up, before Kengo Nakamura whistled a long-range strike just wide minutes later.
Yamase won a second-half free kick in front of goal, but with the stadium holding its breath in anticipation of a Nakamura special, the Celtic playmaker sent his shot flying over the crossbar.
Japan upped the tempo as Maki wasted a chance to open the scoring, but Paraguay spurned an even better opportunity minutes later when Edgar Gonzalez blazed a loose rebound from a Jorge Nunez free kick over the bar with the goal at his mercy.
Referee Paulo Costa drew the ire of the South Americans when he awarded another free kick instead of a penalty for a Marcus Tulio Tanaka handball in the 72nd minute, and Nunez again went close with a wicked curling strike.
Yoshito Okubo made a late appearance to menace the Paraguay goal, but with the Vissel Kobe man unable to convert the chances that came his way, time ran out for a Japan team that never truly looked like scoring.
Japan plays Oman in World Cup Asian Qualifying Group 2 in Yokohama on June 2.