Japan limbered up for next week’s World Cup qualifier against Iraq with a 1-1 draw with Syria in a friendly on Wednesday night.
Japan, which currently tops its qualifying group ahead of Saudi Arabia on goal difference and is looking to take a big step toward a place at a sixth straight World Cup against the Iraqis in Tehran on June 13, fell behind at Ajinomoto Stadium when Syria’s Mardek Mardkian scored with a header in the 48th minute.
But the home side struck back 10 minutes later through midfielder Yasuyuki Konno — who only returned to action with 30 minutes for club side Gamba Osaka on Sunday after breaking his toe in March — before laying siege to the Syrian goal for the rest of the match.
“If you watch the second half, we were good enough to win,” said Japan manager Vahid Halilhodzic. “But I’m satisfied with the draw and it was good preparation for the Iraq game. It was a good test for us. I used a lot of players and took a lot from the game.”
Halilhodzic faces an injury headache for next week’s game after Shinji Kagawa left on a stretcher just 10 minutes into Wednesday’s match and fellow midfielder Hotaru Yamaguchi also picked up an injury.
“We didn’t start well and the injury to Shinji stopped us from settling into our normal shape,” said Halilhodzic. “There were some players whose performances I wasn’t happy with, especially in midfield. We left too much space and there was too much of a gap between our midfield and our attack.”
Genki Haraguchi was at the heart of Japan’s best early attacks, first latching onto a Yuya Osako knock-down to test Syrian goalkeeper Ibrahim Alma, before firing off a long-range effort 10 minutes later.
Syria, which is still in contention for World Cup qualification in fourth place in Group A, almost went ahead in the 27th minute when striker Mahmoud Al-Mawas drilled a shot just wide of Eiji Kawashima’s post.
Yuya Kubo also went close for Japan in first-half injury time, but the visitors took the lead three minutes after the restart when Amro Jeniat swung an inviting cross into the penalty area and Mardkian outjumped Gen Shoji to thump a header past Kawashima.
Japan leveled 10 minutes later when Yuto Nagatomo broke free on the left before playing a low cross into the box, and Konno arrived at the back post to sweep the ball home.
Hiroki Sakai then flashed a volley over the bar as Japan pushed hard for another goal, before halftime substitute Keisuke Honda also went close after barrelling his way into the box 10 minutes later.
Fellow substitute Takashi Inui began to cause the Syrian defense all sorts of problems with a series of raids down the left, but the home side could not take advantage and failed to find the net again before the final whistle.
Japan will get a clearer picture of the Group B qualifying situation when the second-place Saudis take on third-place Australia on Thursday in Adelaide. The top two teams qualify for Russia 2018 automatically, while the third-place team advances to a playoff.
“It was a very tough match, and for both Japan and ourselves it was an important match,” said Syria manager Ayman Alhakim. “We kept our concentration from start to finish and that allowed us to score the first goal. We controlled the first half but we made some mistakes in the second half and couldn’t find a second goal. This match was a very good learning experience for us.
“We have lost a lot of times against Japan but tonight we gave a good performance. I hope we can take this form into our remaining World Cup qualifiers.”