Japan manager Vahid Halilhodzic has warned his players that they are in for a rude surprise if they tackle next week’s World Cup qualifier against Iraq with the same laissez-faire attitude with which they began Wednesday’s 1-1 friendly draw with Syria.
“In the first half, I think there were some players taking the game too lightly,” said Halilhodzic, who takes his team to neutral Tehran to face Iraq on Tuesday. “That’s something that I can’t accept. I think some of the players were surprised by how hard our opponents fought and how much quality they had.”
Japan found itself out-muscled and outmaneuvered by the Syrians in the opening 45 minutes at Ajinomoto Stadium, before going a goal down three minutes into the second half after a thumping header by striker Mardek Mardkian.
Yasuyuki Konno eventually restored parity with an equalizer 10 minutes later before Japan went on to dominate the second half.
But Halilhodzic was in no mood to pull his punches as he contemplated the possibility of a repeat performance against Iraq next week, with an early injury to key midfielder Shinji Kagawa further fouling his mood.
“Of course I think Shinji’s injury had an effect on the team, but there were some players who disappeared out there on the pitch,” said the Bosnian. “I’m going to have to have some harsh words with some of the players. This team still has a fragile side. There is still a gap between what we are trying to do and what we actually do.
“Everyone in Japan thinks that qualification for the World Cup is going to be no problem. But I’ll warn everyone, it is not going to be easy.”
Kagawa fell heavily on his left shoulder and left the pitch on a stretcher in the 10th minute, with Gamba Osaka midfielder Shu Kurata coming in to replace him.
Halilhodzic had no immediate word on Kagawa’s condition, with Japan looking to take a huge step toward a sixth straight World Cup appearance against Iraq on Tuesday. Halilhodzic’s side led Saudi Arabia on goal difference on top of Group B ahead of the Saudis’ crunch match against third-place Australia on Thursday evening in Adelaide.
“Of course it’s disappointing that we didn’t win, but the biggest disappointment was Shinji’s injury,” said left back Yuto Nagatomo, who set up Konno for the equalizer. “But everything we’re doing is geared toward winning the game against Iraq on June 13, and we’ll be in better physical shape when it comes round. I think tonight’s game had an important meaning.”
Halilhodzic was far more satisfied with Japan’s second-half performance, with substitute Takashi Inui making an impact in his first international appearance in over two years. Inui was unable to cap his return to the fold with a goal despite several good chances, but the Eibar winger was happy to reunite with old faces.
“I didn’t really feel anything special — I just wanted to go out there and play with freedom and enjoy it,” said Inui, who scored two goals against Barcelona in a Spanish League game at the Nou Camp on May 21. “It was the first time I had played with Shu (Kurata) since we played together at Cerezo Osaka, so that was fun. I was disappointed that I couldn’t play for longer with Shinji (Kagawa), but I enjoyed playing with all the others.
“One area where I think my game has improved is that I don’t panic and I think that showed tonight. I am 29, after all. Linking up with other players is my strong point and I think I have gotten better at that.”
Halilhodzic unveiled a new center-back pairing for the match, with Kashima Antlers defender Gen Shoji coming in alongside captain Maya Yoshida in the absence of dropped regular Masato Morishige.
The new partnership showed itself to be a work in progress, with Shoji being out-jumped by Mardkian for Syria’s goal, but Yoshida was more concerned with the team’s overall performance.
“It was our first game together, so there are lots of things that we can improve on, but more than just me and Shoji, I really felt how important it is to start games well as a team,” said the Southampton defender. “It was the kind of pitch that made the ball run a bit too fast, so we needed to be more accurate. We made mistakes and that allowed our opponents to get into their rhythm.
“We should have started the first half as aggressively as we did the second. Inui came in and we started to put some good combinations together. In the team meeting, the manager told us to try to put together fast-passing combinations but we weren’t able to do that in the first half, and that made things difficult for us.”