WUHAN, CHINA – Yuki Muto scored on his debut but holder Japan was sentenced to a shock 2-1 defeat to North Korea in its opening match at the East Asian Cup on Sunday night.
Muto struck early in the first half but North Korea piled on the pressure after the break and Ri Hyok Chol equalized before Pak Hyon Il added the second with two minutes left to complete a rousing comeback.
“We were not prepared physically but we had chances and could not take them,” said Japan coach Vahid Halilhodzic, whose team was held to an embarrassing 0-0 draw at home to lowly Singapore in June in its opening World Cup qualifier for the 2018 finals in Russia.
“They sent a two-meter-tall player (Pak) on and scored with the two chances they had. Our players looked tired and we could not keep up physically,” he added.
Captain Masato Morishige said, “They had chances and took them but we didn’t. They brought on a tall player and we could not deal with the second balls properly. We have to score when we have chances.”
With the East Asian Cup falling outside of the official FIFA calendar, Halilhodzic was unable to call on his European-based stars and picked several untried players in a domestic-based 23-man squad.
Shonan Bellmare’s Under-22 defender Wataru Endo and Urawa Reds midfielder Muto were both handed their debuts and the pair needed less than three minutes to stamp their mark on the game.
Endo whipped a low ball into the box from the right flank and Muto swept a first-time effort past North Korea goalkeeper Ri Myong Guk.
Takashi Usami and Kengo Kawamata kept Ri Myong Guk busy by peppering shots at his goal but Japan was forced into a few tight spots and had to defend hard as the North Koreans enjoyed a spell of pressure.
The North Koreans could have gone into the break trailing by a greater margin and they were indebted to Ri Myong Guk, who produced three excellent saves in the space of a few minutes, once from Usami and twice from Nagoya Grampus speedster Kensuke Nagai.
North Korea came out with renewed purpose and Ro Hak Su went close to equalizing in the 51st minute with a shot that flew off target before Hong Kum Song rifled a free kick through the wall and just wide of the upright.
Muto forced Ri Myong Guk into another fine stop in the 75th minute and then headed wide but North Korea was rewarded for its perseverance and equalized with 12 minutes left, Ri Hyok Chol crashing home after Pak headed on a long ball from Sim Hyon Jin.
Pak then stunned Japan at the death when he outmuscled Tomoaki Makino and headed in a cross from Kang Kuk Chol.
Japan plays South Korea on Wednesday before wrapping up the tournament against host China on Sunday.
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