YOKOHAMA — A disciplined defensive performance from Australia frustrated Japan’s attempts to jump to the top of Asian World Cup qualifying Group A on Wednesday night as the Socceroos held Takeshi Okada’s men to a 0-0 draw.
Japan dominated the match in front of 65,571 at International Stadium Yokohama, but an Australian defense marshaled by Lucas Neill and Craig Moore thwarted a series of dangerous attacking moves by the home side.
Wasteful finishing also played its part in Japan’s failure to break the deadlock, and a late 1-0 win for Bahrain over Uzbekistan later on Wednesday keeps up the pressure on Okada’s side despite a four-point cushion in second place.
Okada was disappointed not to take the win, but trained his sights immediately on taking all three points in Japan’s next match against the Bahrainis on March 28.
“From the middle of the first half and into the second half our players did a great job,” he said. “They played the kind of football we wanted to play, with a numerical advantage in defense and pace in attack. Unfortunately we weren’t able to capitalize. A draw is very disappointing but I have to give credit to the players.
“There is still room for improvement and we have to create more chances. We have now played half of our qualifiers, and we are getting better. But we have to keep improving before our next game against Bahrain.”
The result gives Australia 10 points from four games, moving Pim Verbeek’s side within touching distance of South Africa. The manager was understandably pleased with the result.
“For the first half Australia played defensively very well,” he said. “The last 20, 25 minutes we started to get tired and Japan got more ball possession and were more dangerous, so after 90 minutes I am happy with 0-0.”
Okada sprung only one surprise in his starting lineup, preferring Daisuke Matsui to Yoshito Okubo on the left wing. Ryota Tsuzuki took his place in goal in the absence of the injured Seigo Narazaki and Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi.
Keiji Tamada almost drew first blood in the fifth minute when he slipped past Neill at the near post to connect with a Tatsuya Tanaka cross, only to send the ball into the side netting.
The Australians were content to pass it around and wait for an opening, but the pace of Japan’s attacking trio was causing their defense all sorts of problems at the other end.
Matsui drew a yellow card for Scott Chipperfield as he surged toward the box in the 21st minute, before a foul on Shunsuke Nakamura gave Japan a free kick that the Celtic ace blasted over.
Tamada skied another attempt as the home side turned the screw, and Yasuhito Endo failed to make yet another free-kick chance count as he fired into the wall with less than 10 minutes of the first half remaining.
Tamada narrowly missed getting a touch on Makoto Hasebe’s cutback in the box as the seconds ticked down, but the Australians gave a reminder of the threat at the other end as Tim Cahill stung Tsuzuki’s fingers with a long-range drive in injury time.
A careless pass from Hasebe almost let Australia in 10 minutes into the second half, but Okada’s men redoubled their efforts to dominate midfield and put the visitors’ goal under siege.
The success that Japan’s small, fast forwards were having in the first half, however, was beginning to wither on the vine as Neill and Moore cleared their lines with a succession of commanding headers.
Substitute Okubo drew a routine save from Mark Schwarzer in the 67th minute, before the goalkeeper pulled off a fantastic parry to deny Endo minutes later.
The attempts on goal put the wind back in Japan’s sails, and Tamada wasted a glorious chance to capitalize as he headed over in the 79th minute. Okubo was also guilty of wastefulness as he deflected a Hasebe shot wide with minutes to go.
Josh Kennedy replaced Cahill as Australia looked to land the sucker punch, but Japan hung on when the tables look like turning to take a share of the points.
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