SAITAMA - National team manager Vahid Halilhodzic believes his players “deserve two glasses of champagne” after Thursday’s dramatic 2-1 World Cup-qualifying win over Iraq, but warned they will have to sharpen up at set pieces before they take on Australia on Tuesday.
Hotaru Yamaguchi scored a 95th-minute winner to resuscitate Japan’s bid for a place at a sixth straight World Cup, salvaging a match that looked destined for a draw after Saad Abdul-Amir’s 60th-minute header from a free kick canceled out Genki Haraguchi’s first-half opener.
Halilhodzic, whose job was reportedly on the line after starting the final Asian round of Russia 2018 qualifiers with a loss to the United Arab Emirates and a narrow win over Thailand, breathed a sigh of relief but lamented the defending on Abdul-Amir’s goal after watching his team concede twice from set pieces against the UAE.
“I had a good feeling about Yamaguchi,” said Halilhodzic. “I’m happy for him because he doesn’t score so many goals. I joked with Yamaguchi and (Makoto) Hasebe before the game that if they scored, I would buy them a glass of champagne. I think the whole team deserves two glasses of champagne now.
“We couldn’t play the kind of beautiful football that we normally do. We weren’t fresh and we couldn’t get into our rhythm. We needed to be brave and mentally strong to get the win. But we conceded a goal from a free kick and that’s three we’ve let in from set pieces now. That’s too many.”
Japan now travels to Melbourne with a chance to take control of Group B, but the mood at Saitama Stadium was anything but optimistic until Yamaguchi volleyed home a headed clearance from Hiroshi Kiyotake’s free kick deep into injury time.
“We didn’t have so many chances to score and it was difficult when we were looking for the winning goal,” said Japan captain Hasebe. “To be honest, by the end it felt like trying to hit (defender) Maya (Yoshida) was our best chance to score, and it paid off.
“That’s not the kind of football that we’re trying to play, but when you need the three points, that’s what you have to do. We had seven or eight players including myself in the box by the end, and sometimes that’s what you need to do.”
Hertha Berlin forward Haraguchi opened the scoring with a neat flick from a Kiyotake cross in the 26th minute, as both players took full advantage of Halilhodzic’s decision to drop regular starter Shinji Kagawa to the bench.
“For the team to get stronger, it’s important that the players who don’t play often take their chances when they come,” said Sevilla forward Kiyotake. “That’s proof that we’re going in the right direction.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen after this, but when you come on you have to think about what you can do. It’s a big motivation for all of us to see Hotaru come on and score.”
Several of Japan’s European-based players arrived short of match practice after failing to make an impact with their clubs this season, but Kagawa is hoping to force his way back into Halilhodzic’s plans to face Asian champion Australia.
“Of course it’s frustrating, but the most important thing was for the team to get the win,” said Kagawa, who joined the squad late after appearing as a second-half substitute for Borussia Dortmund against Bayer Leverkusen on Saturday. “The result was all that mattered, and we got it.
“I always have an image in my mind of how I want to play, but first I need to get into training. We’re playing a strong opponent next, and I think it will be a tougher game than this one.”
Australia tops Group B on goal difference from Saudi Arabia with seven points after the two teams drew 2-2 later on Thursday. The UAE beat Thailand 3-1 to join Japan on six points, and forward Keisuke Honda urged his teammates to think for themselves when they face the Socceroos on Tuesday.
“There are a lot of things that we need to work on, but Hotaru has put us in a position where we can do that with a smile on our faces,” said Honda, who was replaced by Yu Kobayashi with nine minutes remaining. “I’d prefer to be positive about it.
“The team understands what the manager wants, but football isn’t just about what the manager says. Lots of different situations crop up during a match and you need to be able to react on your own. Tonight we had some problems with our positioning. Nothing to do with our technique or quality, but situations where we could have broken them down better. We need to all be on the same page.”