SAITAMA – National team manager Vahid Halilhodzic believes Japan owes Singapore a debt of gratitude for providing the wake-up call that fueled Thursday’s World Cup qualifying win over Cambodia.
Japan beat Cambodia 3-0 at Saitama Stadium to pick up its first victory on the road to Russia 2018, 2½ months after opening its campaign with a shock 0-0 draw at home to Singapore, then ranked 154th in the world.
Japan dominated Cambodia — ranked even lower than Singapore at 180 — but had to wait until the 28th minute before Keisuke Honda broke the deadlock and Maya Yoshida and Shinji Kagawa went on to add second-half goals.
Halilhodzic acknowledged that his side should have beaten the Southeast Asian minnows by a bigger margin, but the Bosnian was more concerned with exorcising the demons of the Singapore stalemate.
“None of the players were satisfied with the Singapore game and we had to wait two months until we got another chance,” said Halilhodzic, who picked up his first competitive victory in charge of the team after leading an entirely J. League-based squad to a last-place finish at the East Asian Cup last month.
“The players desperately wanted to win today and you could see that in the speed with which they won the ball. Singapore gave us something wonderful — they gave us the necessity to win. Of course it would have been better to win by more goals, but I’m not feeling negative about today’s game.”
Japan enjoyed almost total possession straight from the kick-off, but echoes of the Singapore game began to surface as the home side approached the half-hour mark yet to score and having missed a hatfull of chances.
“The players have the experience from the Singapore match, and we knew that if we played our game and didn’t panic then we would score goals,” said defender Yuto Nagatomo. “I think we were able to play without panicking.
“Football is a difficult game. Even if there is a big gap in quality between the two teams, if one team defends as deep as that then it’s going to be difficult to break them down. It’s good to win 3-0, but if you look at the chances we had to score more, we have to reflect on that. Playing against Asian teams is difficult.”
Japan’s next game is a World Cup qualifier against Afghanistan on Sept. 8 on neutral ground in Tehran, and Halilhodzic expects his team to be greeted by another massed defense in the Iranian capital.
“Afghanistan will probably also defend very deeply and it will be the same sort of game,” he said. “I want to impart some of my philosophy to the team. We had 10 to 15 big chances today but we are still very far from the ideal I am looking for.
“But we are getting better. I can’t say how much better we will be in time for the Afghanistan game, but the quality and confidence will continue to grow. We need more calmness in front of goal. Even Kagawa today wasn’t calm when he needed to be, but this will also improve.”
Kagawa was guilty of the game’s worst miss when he sent the ball wide with an open goal at his mercy in the 42nd minute, but several of his teammates were just as culpable.
“Tonight was a fresh reminder that when you play Asian teams who defend in numbers and don’t venture forward often, you have to take your chances when they come along,” said striker Shinji Okazaki, who has made a strong start to the Premier League season since joining Leicester City in the summer.
“You don’t get any space. It’s like if Leicester plays Manchester City. Tonight I was reminded of what you need to do as a lone striker depending on the type of team you face.”
Japan now has no more home fixtures for the rest of 2015, but must travel to face Afghanistan, Syria, Singapore and Cambodia in World Cup qualifiers before the end of the year.
“Next we are traveling and we have to get the second win, and I expect this result will help us to do that,” said Halilhodzic.
“I want progress from various areas in this team. This needs training time and we don’t get that training time, as I have said many times already. Some players were also tired, but the spirit was very good today.”
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