Yosuke Ideguchi scored with virtually the last kick of the game to give Japan a 1-0 win over North Korea on Saturday in its opening game of the E-1 Football Championship.
Japan went into the match at Ajinomoto Stadium without its unavailable European-based players, with manager Vahid Halilhodzic fielding an entirely J. League-based team featuring only one player with more than 10 international caps.
A lively North Korea side cheered on by around 1,000 red-clad fans created the better chances throughout the 90 minutes, with debutant Japan goalkeeper Kosuke Nakamura pulling out a string of important saves to keep his team in the game.
But Ideguchi gave Japan an unlikely victory when he latched onto a headed knock-down from Yasuyuki Konno deep into injury time, blasting the ball past Ri Myong Guk with 94 minutes on the clock.
“I was just hoping that Kon-san (Konno) would see me as I made my run, and fortunately he did,” said Ideguchi, who was making his ninth international appearance.
“Our opponents were sitting back all game so I thought I would get plenty of chances to shoot. I finally got one at the end and I’m happy about that.”
Japan is looking to win the tournament, known previously as the East Asian Cup and also featuring China and South Korea, for a second time. At the last edition, in 2015, Japan finished last.
South Korea and China, Japan’s next opponent, drew 2-2 earlier in the day.
“It was a bit of a lucky win,” said Halilhodzic. “North Korea had a good game plan, sitting back in defense and then hitting us on the counterattack. We were a little slow in moving the ball after we had won it and our opponents were very compact. But we never gave up until the end and we scored a beautiful goal.”
Halilhodzic handed debuts to Nakamura and FC Tokyo defender Sei Muroya in a starting lineup featuring three players from new J. League champions Kawasaki Frontale, three from Gamba Osaka, two each from Tokyo and Kashima Antlers, and one from Reysol.
Shu Kurata put the ball in the net in the 15th minute only for the referee to rule it out for offside, before Nakamura came to Japan’s rescue with two good saves in the space of two minutes shortly afterward.
“It was my first match,” said Nakamura. “But I approached the game the same way as I do in the J. League.”
Nakamura was pressed into action again early in the second half when Pak Myong Song flashed a glancing header toward his near post, before Ri Yong Jik blasted a long-range shot just over the bar in the 66th minute.
North Korea was looking by far the more likely team to score as the second half progressed, and Pak Myong Song should have done better when he found himself through on goal in the 70th minute.
But Japan stuck to the task and substitute Kengo Kawamata forced an acrobatic save from goalkeeper Ri in injury time, before Ideguchi snatched all three points for the home side when time looked to have run out.
“I think we were very unlucky,” said North Korea’s German manager Jorn Andersen. “We made a very good match, we had good preparation against the Japanese team. Definitely we played very well — we didn’t let them get too many chances.
“They had only one or two chances in the whole game. We had five or six big chances but today we were not lucky. It’s very, very, very hard for me, for the team, to everybody to take a goal again against Japan, like six years ago (in a World Cup qualifier), in the last minute.”
Wei Shihao opened the scoring for China in the day’s earlier game before South Korea hit back with first-half goals from Kim Shin-wook and Lee Jae-sung. Yu Dabao then claimed a share of the spoils for China with a header in the 76th minute.
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