MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA – Japan coach Vahid Halilhodzic’s decision to sit back and try to hit Australia on the break on Tuesday certainly had its effect, taking the Socceroos players by complete surprise.
“Knowing Japan in the past, and the players that they have, I didn’t expect it to be that extreme,” Australia defender Matthew Spiranovic said after the 1-1 draw at Etihad Stadium — the fifth draw in eight meetings between the two sides in World Cup qualifying.
“With the players they’ve got, the (Keisuke) Hondas, the (Shinji) Kagawas and the midfielders they’ve got, I don’t think they would like to be retreating behind the ball and chasing it. But it’s normal away from home. They scored first and they were happy to do that.
“They were comfortable just sitting back, playing us on the counterattack. They scored the first goal and were happy to have 10 players behind the ball. I don’t think they were pressing us aggressively in their half.
“We found it hard to get attacking players on the ball so in that sense, they suffocated us a little bit.”
Genki Haraguchi’s fifth-minute goal put Japan in the driver’s seat, allowing the visitors to let the game come to them. An ill-advised challenge by Haraguchi early in the second half allowed Australia to equalize from the spot, but apart from that and a late free header by Spiranovic, the hosts were handcuffed by a Japanese team determined to take points from the game.
Australia goalscorer Mile Jedinak felt Australia was outfoxed by Japan.
“I don’t think we were sluggish,” the Aston Villa man said. “I think we got sucked into a trap, maybe a little naivety from our point of view. It was a mistake (for Japan’s goal) and we’re going to have to rectify that.
“But it’s a point gained and onto the game next month.”
With Leicester City striker Shinji Okazaki not 100 percent, Halilhodzic played Honda up front on his own — something the AC Milan man has not done in four years — and slotted Kawasaki Frontale’s Yu Kobayashi on the right wing in place of Honda.
“I thought we played a fantastic match. We managed the game with good tactics,” Halilhodzic said. “If we were a bit more fresh and had more pace, we could have won. I wanted to throw a surprise, tactically. We needed to be efficient.
“Australia can only score from free kicks and corners. I gave very specific instructions to Honda and Kobayashi on set pieces. Australia are Asian champions and we could not afford to take many risks.”
Japan improved to seven points from four games, moving up to third in the group after leader Saudi Arabia defeated the United Arab Emirates 3-0. Australia is second on eight points with Iraq, which hammered last-place Thailand 4-0, in fourth.
The result also kept Halilhodzic on the job at least until Nov. 15, when Japan hosts Saudi Arabia in its last match of the year.
Asked if Halilhodzic would stay in charge, Japan Football Association technical director Akira Nishino said, “Of course. This is not a bad result at all.”
In Group A, Iran beat South Korea 1-0 at home to stay unbeaten and on top of the table with 10 points from four games, one point ahead of Uzbekistan which defeated China 2-0 at home. South Korea is in third on seven points.
Qatar won 1-0 over Syria for its first home win of the campaign.