Japan’s 0-0 draw with Australia on Wednesday night was far from being the disastrous result that Socceroos manager Pim Verbeek warned it would be during his pre-match mind games.
Bahrain’s injury-time win over Uzbekistan later the same day, on the other hand, could yet prove to be a fly in the ointment.
Japan was hugely unlucky not to take all three points after a thoroughly impressive performance in Yokohama, but a share of the spoils nonetheless leaves Takeshi Okada’s men in a strong position in second place in the qualifying group.
Their footing could have been even more solid had Mahmood Abdulrahman not popped up in the 95th minute to give Bahrain a 1-0 win in Tashkent, however, and the Gulf side now sits level on four points with Qatar, four behind Japan.
A draw would have effectively eliminated both Bahrain and the Uzbeks from the automatic qualification slots, but Abdulrahman’s late intervention now ramps up the stakes for his side’s showdown with Japan on March 28.
Defeat for Okada’s men in that match would blow the group wide open, and the manager is unlikely to be looking forward to facing a team that has inflicted defeat on his squad twice in the past year.
A win for Japan would represent a giant stride toward qualification, however, and Wednesday night’s performance should offer plenty of succor.
Japan went at the Australians with purpose, vigor and determination, and completely nullified its unbeaten opponent’s attacking threat at the other end.
Makoto Hasebe and Yasuhito Endo were outstanding as they dominated central midfield, while Yuji Nakazawa and Marcus Tulio Tanaka had Tim Cahill in their pocket throughout.
The speed of the Japanese strikers gave the Australian defense a torrid time, and Tatsuya Tanaka, Keiji Tamada and Daisuke Matsui not only created chances for themselves but also drew foul after foul in dangerous areas outside the box.
But when a team plays to its full potential, it exposes its own limitations.
Despite the openings the strikers’ pace carved out, the central defensive pairing of Lucas Neill and Craig Moore had little problem dealing with anything in the air.
The sight of the 167-cm Tanaka trying to beat Neill to a cross is one that will be eager for Okada to forget.
But when the manager turned to his bench to shake things up, his best options were Yoshito Okubo and Shinji Okazaki — both small, live-wire strikers very much in the mold of those they were about to replace.
The only substitute who could have offered a different approach was Seiichiro Maki, but the JEF United man has had more than his fair share of chances without ever looking the part.
Okada, it seems, has no Plan B.
Chong Tese, the Japan-born striker who starred in North Korea’s 1-0 win over Saudi Arabia on Wednesday, would have been the perfect solution had he opted to play for the country of his birth.
There is no point dwelling on that now, and Okada must hope a suitable candidate can emerge when the J. League season starts next month.
Wednesday night’s result has edged Japan closer to a fourth successive World Cup appearance, but patience must now be paramount.
A home win over Bahrain cannot be taken for granted, but if Okada’s side can reproduce and refine the kind of display that so rattled the Australians, the rewards will be there for the taking.
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